The Discovery of Streptomycin Recorded in Lab Notebooks

The notebook below helped solve a decades-old scientific mystery: who deserved credit for discovering the antibiotic streptomycin?

For as long as archivists at Rutgers University could remember, a small cardboard box marked with the letter W in black ink had sat unopened in a dusty corner of the special collections of the Alexander Library. Next to it were 60 sturdy archive boxes of papers, a legacy of the university’s most famous scientist: Selman A. Waksman, who won a Nobel Prize in 1952 for the discovery of streptomycin, the first antibiotic to cure tuberculosis.

The 60 boxes contained details of how streptomycin was found — and also of the murky story behind it, a vicious legal battle between Dr. Waksman and his graduate student Albert Schatz over who deserved credit.

Dr. Waksman died in 1973; after Dr. Schatz’s death in 2005, the papers were much in demand by researchers trying to piece together what really happened between the professor and his student. But nobody looked in the small cardboard box…

To make a long story short, back in the 1940′s, Dr. Schatz had isolated the antibiotic. Dr. Waksman arranged for further testing that showed it to be effective. The discovery was big news, and Dr. Waksman started taking all the credit for it. He also started reaping the financial benefits, so Dr. Schatz sued for his share. When the lawsuit went to court, Waksman accused Schatz of tampering with his lab notebooks, which later went missing:

But Dr. Waksman’s damaging allegation was now on the record. When the professor’s papers were transferred to the archives, his own sand-colored, clothbound 5-by-8-inch notebooks, which covered the period of the streptomycin discovery, were included in the 60 boxes. But Dr. Schatz’s notebooks were not there….

In 2010, the author Peter Pringle was working with archivists at Rutgers while researching his book Experiment Eleven: Dark Secrets Behind the Discovery of a Wonder Drug, and they finally found the missing notebooks:

When she pulled down the box and carefully opened it, however, there, loosely piled inside, were five clothbound notebooks — just like Dr. Waksman’s, but marked “Albert Schatz.”

In the notebook for 1943, on Page 32, Dr. Schatz had started Experiment 11. In meticulous cursive, he had written the date, Aug. 23, and the title, “Exp. 11 Antagonistic Actinomycetes,” a reference to the strange threadlike microbes found in the soil that produce antibiotics. Underneath the title he recorded where he had found the microbes in “leaf compost, straw compost and stable manure” on the Rutgers College farm, outside his laboratory.

The following pages detailed his experiments and his discovery of two strains of a gray-green actinomycete named Streptomyces griseus, Latin for gray. Each strain produced an antibiotic that destroyed germs of E. coli in a petri dish — and, he was to find out later, also destroyed the TB germ. The notebook shows that the moment of discovery belongs to Dr. Schatz.

Yet another example of the value of keeping careful notes! Read more at Notebooks Shed Light on Antibiotic’s Contested Discovery – NYTimes.com.

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2 Responses to “The Discovery of Streptomycin Recorded in Lab Notebooks”

  1. Thanks for this little tid bit. I agree there value in keeping notes.

  2. [...] cure tuberculosis.  Read the story of the missing notebooks (and their later discovery) on the Notebook Stories blog, and at the New York Times. (Short version: the antibiotic was discovered by the junior member of a [...]

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