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Selman Waksman
Selman Waksman NYWTS.jpg
Born (1888-07-22)July 22, 1888
Nova Pryluka, Kiev Governorate, Russian Empire (now Ukraine)
Died August 16, 1973(1973-08-16) (aged 85)
Citizenship United States of America (after 1916)
Alma mater Rutgers University
University of California, Berkeley
Spouse(s) Deborah B. Mitnik (died 1974)
Children Byron H. Waksman (1919–2012)
Awards Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (1948)
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1952)
Leeuwenhoek Medal (1950)
Scientific career
Fields Biochemistry and Microbiology
Doctoral advisor T. Brailsford Robertson

Selman Abraham Waksman (July 22, 1888 – August 16, 1973) was a Jewish Russian-born American inventor, Nobel Prize laureate, biochemist and microbiologist whose research into the decomposition of organisms that live in soil enabled the discovery of streptomycin and several other antibiotics. A professor of biochemistry and microbiology at Rutgers University for four decades, he discovered a number of antibiotics (and introduced the modern sense of that word to name them), and he introduced procedures that have led to the development of many others. The proceeds earned from the licensing of his patents funded a foundation for microbiological research, which established the Waksman Institute of Microbiology located on the Rutgers University Busch Campus in Piscataway, New Jersey (USA). In 1952, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for "ingenious, systematic and successful studies of the soil microbes that led to the discovery of streptomycin." Waksman and his foundation later were sued by Albert Schatz, one of his PhD students and the discoverer of streptomycin, for minimizing Schatz's role in the discovery.

In 2005, Selman Waksman was granted an ACS National Historic Chemical Landmark in recognition of the significant work of his lab in isolating more than 15 antibiotics, including streptomycin, which was the first effective treatment for tuberculosis.

Early life and education

Selman Waksman was born on July 22, 1888 (July 8th according to the Jewish calendar), to Jewish parents, in Nova Pryluka, Kiev Governorate, Russian Empire, now Vinnytsia Oblast, Ukraine. He was the son of Fradia (London) and Jacob Waksman. In 1910, shortly after receiving his diploma from the Fifth Gymnasium in Odesa, he immigrated to the United States and became a naturalized American citizen six years later.

Waksman attended Rutgers College (now Rutgers University), where he graduated in 1915 with a Bachelor of Science in agriculture. He continued his studies at Rutgers, receiving a Master of Science the following year, in 1916. During his graduate study, he worked under J. G. Lipman at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station at Rutgers performing research in soil bacteriology. Waksman spent some months in 1915-1916 at the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC under Charles Thom, studying soil fungi. He was appointed as a research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, and in 1918 he was awarded his doctor of philosophy in biochemistry.


He joined the faculty at Rutgers University in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology.

At Rutgers, Waksman's team discovered several antibiotics, including actinomycin, clavacin, streptothricin hydrolase, streptomycin, grisein, neomycin, fradicin, candicidin, candidin. Waksman co-discovered streptomycin with Albert Schatz. Streptomycin was the first effective drug against gram negative bacteria and the first antibiotic used to cure tuberculosis. Waksman is credited with coining the term antibiotics, to describe antibacterials derived from other living organisms, for example penicillin, though the term was used by the French dermatologist François Henri Hallopeau, in 1871 to describe a substance opposed to the development of life.

In 1931 Waksman organized the division of Marine Bacteriology at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in addition to his task at Rutgers. He was appointed as a marine bacteriologist there and served until 1942. He was elected a trustee at WHOI and finally a Life Trustee.

In 1951, using half of his personal patent royalties, Waksman created the Waksman Foundation for Microbiology. At a meeting of the board of trustees of the foundation, held in July 1951, he urged the building of a facility for work in microbiology, named the Waksman Institute of Microbiology, which is located on the Busch Campus of Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey. First president of the foundation, Waksman was succeeded in this position by his son, Byron H. Waksman, from 1970 to 2000.

Personal life and death

Waksman was married to Deborah B. Mitnik. They had one son, Byron H. Waksman, M.D., who was an Assistant Professor at Harvard University Medical School, and Professor of Microbiology at Yale University Medical School.

Selman Waksman died on August 16, 1973, at a Hyannis, Massachussettes Hospital and was interred at the Woods Hole Village Cemetery in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. His tombstone is inscribed "Selman Abraham Waksman: Scientist", with his dates of birth and death, and the epitaph "The earth will unlock and fetch ahead salvation" in Hebrew and English, from Isaiah 45:8.



Waksman had been studying the Streptomyces family of organism since his college student days and had, for a time, been studying the organism Streptomyces griseus. Streptomycin was isolated from S. griseus and found effective against tuberculosis by one of Waksman's graduate students, Albert Schatz. These results were later confirmed by Elizabeth Bugie Gregory, whose name was also published on "Streptomycin, a Substance Exhibiting Antibiotic Activity Against Gram-Positive and Gram-Negative Bacteria" with Schatz and Waksman. However, Bugie’s name was not on the second key paper in 1944, which was regarding the efficacy of streptomycin against tuberculosis in test tubes, as Schatz claimed Bugie was not involved with the experiment. Bugie was also not given credit for her work on streptomycin, nor was she listed on the patent proposal, as she signed an affidavit stating that she did not have any contribution in discovering streptomycin. This was submitted under an attorney of the Rutgers Research and Endowment Foundation.


Neomycin is derived from actinomycetes and was discovered by Waksman and Hubert A. Lechevalier, one of Waksman's graduate students. The discovery was published in the journal Science.

Marine bacteria

Waksman's research also examined the role of bacteria in marine systems, with a particular focus on the role of bacteria in nutrient cycles. Waksman examined the degradation of alginic acid, cellulose, and zooplankton. Waksman, working with Cornelia Carey, Margaret Hotchkiss, Yvette Hardman, and Donald Johnston, conducted multiple studies on the actions of bacteria in marine systems which included quantifying the abundance and viability of bacteria in seawater., examining the impact of copper on bacterial growth, estimating the impact of bacterial activity on the nitrogen cycle, and a separation of bacteria into groups based on habitat use in seawater, on plankton, or in the sediments.

Other tributes involve anti-fouling paint for the Navy, the use of enzymes in laundry detergents, and the practice of Concord grape rootstock to safeguard French vineyards from fungal infections.

Awards and honors

Waksman acquired many awards and honours, including the Nobel Prize in 1952; the Star of the Rising Sun granted to him by the emperor of Japan, and the rank of Commandeur in the French Légion d'honneur. Waksman was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1952. In the award speech, Waksman was called "one of the greatest benefactors to mankind," as the result of the discovery of streptomycin which he took the credit for. Schatz protested being left out of the award, even sending a letter to the King of Sweden, King Gustav the Sixth, but the State did not have any influence over the Nobel Prize Committee’s decision and they ruled that he was a mere lab assistant working under a scientist.

The Selman A. Waksman Award in Microbiology of the National Academy of Sciences is given in his honor.

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