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Selman Waksman

"inventor" of the word antibiotic

Selman Waksman

Selman Waksman was born in Novaya Priluka, near Kiev, Ukraine, on July 22, 1888. Educated primarily by private tutors, he received the equivalent of a high school diploma in 1910, after which he emigrated to the United States. While working on a cousin's farm in New Jersey, Waksman became interested in soil science, an interest he was able to explore further at Rutgers University. After earning his Bachelor of Science in Agriculture degree in 1915, Waksman became a research assistant under Dr. J.G. Lipman at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, where his research into soil-borne bacteria resulted in his receiving a Master of Science degree in 1916. He became a naturalized citizen that same year, and also married Deborah Mitnick, who had emigrated from the same village Waksman had come from. He subsequently spent two years as a Research Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, from which he received his Doctorate in Biochemistry in 1918. Returning to Rutgers, Waksman became a research associate in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology; he was made an associate professor in 1925, a full professor in 1930, and head of the newly-reorganized Department of Microbiology in 1940.

Waksman's research focused primarily on finding soil-borne microbes that could be used against bacteria. He did this by looking for growth inhibition zones around single colonies of systematically isolated soil microbes, grown under a variety of culture conditions, and then testing the inhibition on specifically targeted pathogenic bacteria. With a staff that included dozens of research assistants, he was able to systematically examine and test thousands of individual soil samples. By 1940 he had created a screening system to isolate and identify organic substances with antibiotic properties. It was Waksman who coined the word "antibiotic," which he defined as being "any chemical substance produced by a microorganism or fungi that has the capacity, in dilute solutions, to inhibit the growth of or destroy bacteria and other microorganisms."

The first true antibiotic to be identified by Waksman's staff was Actinomyces antiobioticus, from which they produced actinomycin A in 1940. Although this form of actinomycin proved to be very toxic to experimental animals and therefore of little therapeutic value, future research led to variations on the original formula that have been shown effective against certain kinds of cancer cells. Waksman and his team went on to identify more than twenty other natural substances that were effective against bacteria without being toxic, including clavacin, streptothricin, grisein, neomycin, fradicin, and candicidin. The antibiotic for which Waksman is best known is streptomycin, the first effective treatment for tuberculosis, which was isolated by research assistant Albert Schatz in 1944.

Waksman made a fortune by selling the patent rights on the antiobiotics he and his staff identified, and in 1951 he used 80% of the profits earned from streptomycin to establish and endow an Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University, another 10% to establish and endow the Foundation for Microbiology that now bears his name, and then spread the rest between between all of the scientists, students, and technicians who had contributed to his work (Schatz got approximately 3% of that share). He was honored with the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1952, and retired from his laboratory in 1958.

Waksman was the author of fifteen books, including Enzymes (1926), Principles of Soil Microbiology (1938), and his autobiography My Life with the Microbes (1954). In addition to his work with soil organisms, he also studied marine microbes at the Oceanographic Institute in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, from 1931 to 1942. He died in Hyannis, Massachusetts, on August 16, 1973, and is buried at Cromwell Cemetery in Woods Hole. His son, Byron H. Waksman, followed in his footsteps and became a professor of microbiology at Yale University Medical School.

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Waksman Institute of Microbiology

Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine

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This page was last updated on 07/21/2018.