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Selman Abraham Waksman

(1888—1973) Russian-born American microbiologist


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(1888–1973)

Russian-born US biochemist, who won the 1952 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of the antibiotic streptomycin.

After emigrating to the USA in 1910, Waksman studied at Rutgers University and the University of California, from which he received his PhD in 1918. He returned to Rutgers as a lecturer in soil microbiology, becoming professor (1930–40) and then professor of microbiology (1940–58). He was made emeritus professor on his retirement in 1958.

Waksman's special field was soil microbiology, in particular the role of fungi and bacteria in the decomposition of organic matter and humus formation. He wrote Principles of Soil Microbiology (1927), one of the most comprehensive works on the subject at that time. The discovery of penicillin's therapeutic potential encouraged Waksman to investigate the soil microorganisms called actinomycetes in the hope of finding new antibiotics (a term introduced by Waksman in 1941). In 1944 he announced the discovery of streptomycin, which he had isolated from Streptomyces griseus. This was the first safe antibiotic found that was effective against Gram-negative bacteria, including the species responsible for tuberculosis, which are resistant to penicillin. He later discovered another antibiotic, neomycin, obtained from Streptomyces fradiae. This is used to treat bowel infections and local skin or eye infections. Waksman's autobiography, My Life with the Microbes, was published in 1954.

Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945) — Science and Mathematics.


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