Waksman, Selman A.

Waksman, Selman A. (Abraham)

(1888–1973) soil microbiologist; born in Priluka, Ukraine. He came to the U.S.A. in 1910 and lived with relatives on a New Jersey farm. He became a soil microbiologist at Rutgers (1918–58), while concurrently working at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (1921–54) and at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute as a marine bacteriologist (1931–42). After early research on peat and humus, he focused on fungus-like soil bacteria called actinomycetes, classifying them and extensively investigating their chemistry. To determine why the tuberculosis bacillus does not survive in soil, Waksman and his staff examined over 10,000 soil microorganisms. He coined the term "antibiotic" for antibacterial microbial metabolites, and in 1943 he discovered streptomycin, effective against not only the tuberculosis bacillus but also sulfa- and penicillin-resistant bacteria. For this accomplishment, Waksman won the 1952 Nobel Prize in physiology. He continued to isolate other antibiotics and brought soil microbiology to scientific prominence. His autobiography, My Life with the Microbes (1954), was translated into many languages.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.