The Story of Streptomycin

Last week was the birthday of Selman Waksman, an American biochemist who was born on July 2, 1888.  Waksman first coined the term “antibiotic” in its modern usage.  His lab at Rutgers University was credited with discovering more than 20 antibiotics, including streptomycin and neomycin.

Antibiotics are substances that kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria.  Streptomycin was the first antibiotic to be effective against tuberculosis, and is on the World Health Organization’s “List of Essential Medicines.”

Two stories about streptomycin are worth sharing.  The first is a controversy about its discovery.  Albert Schatz, one of Waksman’s graduate students, actually isolated streptomycin and discovered its properties. At Waksman’s urging, Schatz waived all royalty rights to the antibiotic to ensure its widespread adoption.  He later learned that Waksman retained his own royalty agreement.

Even worse, Waksman increasingly downplayed Schatz’ role in the discovery.  When the Nobel Prize committee announced Waksman as its 1952 winner in Physiology or Medicine, numerous academics recommended Schatz as a co-recipient.  Nobel ruled that Schatz was “a mere lab assistant working under an eminent scientist.”  Nevertheless, they revised Waksman’s award from “discovery of streptomycin” to “ingenious, systematic and successful studies… that led to the discovery of streptomycin.”

The truth about Schatz’ role was not confirmed until 60 years later in 2012, when a researcher found the original lab notebooks in a forgotten cardboard box.  Unfortunately, Schatz had died five years earlier in academic obscurity.

My second story about streptomycin has a happier ending.  During World War II, Schatz was trying to manufacture enough streptomycin to use in human tests.  By the end of the war, he had produced enough for exactly one test subject.  The subject was a 23-year-old lieutenant badly wounded by machine gun fire.  He had developed a life-threatening lung infection and was not responding to massive doses of penicillin.

Streptomycin saved the young soldier’s life, giving him a miraculous recovery and confirming the antibiotic’s effectiveness.  Years later, this lieutenant would go on to become Senate Majority Leader and a candidate for President of the United States.  His name was Robert Dole.

Agilent is involved in the discovery, manufacture and quality control of antibiotics.  An Agilent LC-MS/MS system has been used for the determination and confirmation of streptomycin in different types of honey.  And a quick and easy method has been developed to analyze streptomycin sulfate (its soluble form) using an Agilent evaporative light scattering detector.


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