Forgotten notebook reveals discovery, mentor's betrayal

  • Article by: PETER PRINGLE , New York Times
  • Updated: June 16, 2012 - 3:52 PM

Albert Schatz, left, and Rutgers University professor Selman Waksman work in a lab, in an undated handout photo.

Photo: Special Collections And Universi, New York Times

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For as long as archivists at Rutgers University could remember, a small box had sat unopened in the special collections of the Alexander Library. Next to it were 60 archive boxes of papers, a legacy of the university's most famous scientist: Selman 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 Waksman and his graduate student Albert Schatz over who deserved credit. Waksman died in 1973; after Schatz's death in 2005, the papers were much in demand by researchers trying to piece together what really happened. But nobody looked in the small cardboard box.

The story of streptomycin is no ordinary tale of discovery. It began in August 1943, when Schatz, 23, a graduate student, isolated the powerful antibiotic produced by a bacterium, Streptomyces griseus, that had been found in a pot of farmyard soil.

His supervisor, Waksman, arranged for the Mayo Clinic to test the substance. It worked. It cleared up infections, including TB, that had defied even the first wonder drug, penicillin.

But in telling and retelling the story, Waksman slowly began to drop Schatz's name. He also arranged with Rutgers to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties from the patent that he and Schatz were awarded; Schatz received nothing.

In 1950, Schatz, who had by then earned his Ph.D., sued Waksman and Rutgers, and after a year of legal back-and-forth, Schatz was recognized as "co-discoverer" and given a share of the royalties. But the scientific establishment sided with Waksman. And two years later Waksman alone was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery. The Nobel committee ruled that Schatz was a mere lab assistant working under an eminent scientist. Schatz disappeared into academic obscurity.

But then, in 2010, archivist Erika Gorder pulled down the small box next to Waksman's papers after a request from a reporter seeking the records. Inside, were five clothbound notebooks marked "Albert Schatz." The pages, in meticulous cursive, detailed his experiments and his discovery of two strains of a gray-green actinomycete named Streptomyces griseus, Latin for gray. There, the pages showed that the moment of discovery belongs to Schatz.

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