Selman Waksman Biography

Selman Waksman, a Russian-born American scientist, is renowned for his groundbreaking discovery of antibiotics, particularly streptomycin, which revolutionized the medical field by effectively treating tuberculosis. With a passion for studying organic substances, Waksman dedicated his life to research as an inventor, biochemist, and microbiologist. He initiated studies on the decomposition of organic residues in soils and composts, leading to the formation of humus. Throughout his illustrious career, Waksman discovered over twenty antibiotics and introduced procedures that paved the way for the development of many others. His remarkable contribution to medicine earned him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Notably, the royalties from the sale of streptomycin and neomycin were used to establish the Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University, later renamed the Waksman Institute of Microbiology. This institute continues to thrive, supporting various programs and research in the field of microbiology.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Selman Abraham Waksman
  • Died At Age: 85
  • Born Country: Ukraine
  • Inventors
  • Biochemists
  • Died on: August 16, 1973
  • Place of death: Falmouth, Massachusetts, United States
  • Grouping of People: Nobel Laureates in Medicine
  • Education: University Of California, Berkeley, Rutgers University
  • Awards:
    • 1952 – Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
    • 1948 – Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research
    • Leeuwenhoek Medal

Childhood & Early Life

Selman Waksman was born on July 22, 1888, in Nova Pryluka, Podolia Governorate, Russian Empire, to Jewish parents, Fradia and Jacob Waksman. Young Waksman attained his early education from private tutors before enrolling in an evening school in Odessa. He became bar mitzvah at the age of thirteen. In 1910, he gained his matriculation degree from Fifth Gymnasium. Same year, the family shifted base to United States, after his mother’s death. In 1916, he became a naturalised American citizen.


In America, Waksman attended Rutgers College. He graduated from the same in 1915 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture. Continuing his studies at Rutgers, he received a Master’s degree in science the following year. While studying, Waksman trained under J.G Lipman at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, researching on soil bacteriology. It was Lipman who helped define Waksman future career as a microbiologist.


Upon completing his doctorate degree, Waksman returned to his alma mater at Rutgers in 1918, where he was appointed as a lecturer on soil microbiology. Simultaneously, he joined Dr Lipman as a microbiologist at the latter’s Experiment Station. It was while working as a university scientist at Rutgers that Waksman started on his pursuits with actinomycetes and with organisms involved in sulphur oxidation. His most important contribution during this phase was the isolation of Thiobacillus thiooxidans. Along with his fellow researchers and colleagues, Waksman devised standardized methods of evaluating microbial populations in soil samples. He studied the decomposition of organic residues in soils and compost to form humus.

In 1924, Waksman made a family trip to Europe where he attended the International Conference of Soil Science in Rome. Next, he toured the microbiological and soil laboratories of the European countries. Returning to his homeland, he penned the book, ‘Soil Microbiology in 1924’ which became a precursor to his famous book, ‘Principles of Soil Microbiology’ which was published in 1927. In between, he published the book, ‘Enzymes’. Post 1925, his scientific research became large and diverse as more and more graduate students and postdoctoral fellows joined his laboratory. He devoted himself more to the organizational aspects of science. During this phase, he published several works, namely, ‘The Soil and the Microbe’, ‘Humus’ and so on. He also became an adviser on the commercial development of composts.

In 1931, he developed a laboratory for the study of marine microbiology, where he along with his students worked each summer for twelve years. Together, they studied the fouling of ship bottoms, devising methods for protecting materials against tropical deterioration. In 1939, he started his pioneering research work on antibiotics. He undertook a systematic effort to identify soil organisms producing soluble substances that would be useful in the control of infectious disease. In 1941, Waksman first coined the word ‘antibiotics’ to microbial products with antimicrobial properties. The startling discovery changed the panorama of the medical world globally as it effectively put an end to the threat of fatal bacterial infections. A decade of extensive research and development led to the discovery of ten antibiotics, their isolation and characterization some of which include actinomycin, clavacin, streptothricin, streptomycin, grisein, neomycin, fradicin, candicidin, candidin, and others. Amongst them, three had important clinical application associated with them, actinomycin in 1940, streptomycin in 1944 and neomycin in 1949. Eighteen antibiotics were discovered later.

Post World War II, Waksman travelled extensively to the Soviet Union. His main purpose of the visits was to promote scientific exchange of information and establish methods of producing antibiotics. Along with his scientific career, Waksman well balanced his academic career. He was appointed as an Associate Professor at Rutgers University in 1925, and was eventually promoted to Professor in 1930. In 1940, he served as the Head of the Department of Microbiology. With the establishment of the Institute of Microbiology at the Rutgers University, he was appointed Director of the Institute of Microbiology. He retired from the post in 1958.

Major Works

Waksman discovered a total of twenty antibiotics through extensive research and development, of which actinomycin discovered in 1940, streptomycin in 1944 and neomycin in 1949 were the most prized invention. The discovery of streptomycin created a revolution in the medical world as it effectively put an end to the threat of tuberculosis. The discovery also gained him the most coveted award, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1952.

Personal Life & Legacy

Selman Waksman married his childhood sweetheart, Bertha Deborah Mitnik, on August 4, 1916. Following their marriage, the couple stayed at California and New York before finally settling at New Brunswick, New Jersey. Bertha frequently accompanied her husband on his scientific trips. The couple was blessed with a daughter, Byron Halsted. Byron attended the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and later pursued an academic career as a research immunologist and teacher. She was involved in the multiple sclerosis research. Waksman breathed his last on August 16, 1973. He was interred at the Crowell Cemetery in Woods Hole, Barnstable County, Massachusetts. The Institute of Microbiology which was opened at the Rutgers’ University in 1951 wherein Waksman served as the first director has been reamed him. The institute is today known as Waksman Institute of Microbiology.

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