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Waksman, Selman (Abraham)

soil organisms rutgers streptomycin

(1888–1973) Russian–US biochemist: isolated the antibiotic streptomycin and demonstrated its effectiveness against tuberculosis.

Waksman had a difficult time as a young Jewish boy in the Ukraine, and was glad to emigrate to the USA in 1910; he worked his way through his agriculture course at Rutgers College, gained his PhD in California in biochemistry and returned to Rutgers, becoming professor of soil biology in 1930. From 1939 Waksman began a systematic search for antibiotics from soil organisms. He had rich experience of such organisms, and in 1943 he isolated the new antibiotic streptomycin from the soil organism Streptomyces griseus (which he had discovered in 1915). This is active against the human tubercle bacillus and, mixed with two other compounds, it became widely used in treatment. Previously there had been no effective drug for this major killing disease, but by its use tuberculosis became a problem that had largely been solved in developed countries by the 1970s. Waksman won the Nobel Prize in 1952. He and his co-workers found a number of other antibiotics in soil organisms, including neomycin, valuable in intestinal surgery.

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