The Discovery of Streptomycin

The mass manufacture of penicillin during World War II stimulated urgent interest in other medicinally important soil microorganisms.

Aug 1, 2007
Terry Sharrer
<figcaption>Selman Waksman's exact replica of his notes on experiments, showing the antagonistic properties of streptomycin against microorganisms, (April 1943) Credit: Courtesy of Terry Sharrer</figcaption>
Selman Waksman's exact replica of his notes on experiments, showing the antagonistic properties of streptomycin against microorganisms (April 1943)
Credit: Courtesy of Terry Sharrer

The mass manufacture of penicillin during World War II stimulated urgent interest in other medicinally important soil microorganisms. Selman Waksman, chair of microbiology at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (Rutgers University) in the 1940s, had investigated the mycelial bacteria Actinomycetes since World War I, and had screened for several species that produced metabolites that inhibited other microbes.

Seen here in Waksman's notes are his April 1943 experiments with nutrient formulas for growing streptomycin-producing cultures. By fall 1943, Waksman had his lab group concentrating on the Actinomycetes when William Feldman and Corwin Hinshaw, visiting from the Mayo Clinic, presented a clinical trial opportunity for an anti-tuberculosis drug. Waksman assigned preparation for that task to his graduate students, chiefly Albert Schatz. Schatz soon isolated streptomycin, an aminoglycoside that inhibits protein synthesis, and tested it on the pathogen.1 Feldman and Hinshaw carried out animal testing and then treated "Patricia T." between November 1944 and February 1945. She was streptomycin's first success against TB.2

<figcaption>Selmean Waksman (1888-1973) and Albert Schatz (1920-2005), codiscoverers of streptomycin Credit: © Smithsonian Institution</figcaption>
Selman Waksman (1888-1973) and Albert Schatz (1920-2005), codiscoverers of streptomycin
Credit: © Smithsonian Institution

The US Patent Office issued a patent (No. 2,449,866; Sept. 21, 1948) to Waksman and Schatz for "streptomycin and process of preparation," which they assigned to the Rutgers Research and Endowment Foundation. Commercial development, however, created a rift between the inventors over royalty shares and, more vigorously, over who really deserved the greater credit for discovering streptomycin's importance.

Schatz sued Waksman and Rutgers to obtain a royalty-sharing agreement (10% to Waksman, 3% to Schatz, 7% to others involved in the discovery, and 80% to Rutgers). Waksman's solo 1952 Nobel Prize grieved Schatz to his death in 2005, though Rutgers awarded him its highest honor in 1994 as codiscoverer of streptomycin. Eventually, the Actinomycetes proved to be the most abundant source of naturally occurring antibiotics.

References

1. A. Schatz et al., "Streptomycin, a substance exhibiting antibiotic activity against Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria," Proc Exp Biol Med , 55:66-9, 1944. 
2. K.H. Pfuetze et al., "The first clinical trial of streptomycin in human tuberculosis." Am Rev Tuberc , 71:752-4, 1955. [PUBMED]