Selman Abraham Waksman, whose insights and discoveries had so profound an effect on the well-being of people around the world, was born of Jewish parents in the village of Novaya Priluka, Russia (now the Ukraine), on July 22, 1888. His childhood experience with anti-semitism and with the abortive revolution of 1905 convinced him that he could not fulfill his dreams and realize his potential in Czarist Russia.
Waksman emigrated to the United States in 1910, settling in Metuchen, New Jersey. In 1915 he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rutgers University. The next year, he became a U.S. citizen and received his M.S. degree in agriculture from Rutgers. His crucial decision to enter an agricultural rather than a medical course was guided by Dr. Jacob G. Lipman, a bacteriologist who was dean of the College of Agriculture and himself an immigrant from Russia. Courses in bacteriology with Lipman and summer projects with Dr. Byron David Halstead, a plant nutritionist and geneticist, helped to define Waksman's future career. He carried out his master's project at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, the institution where he spent essentially his entire scientific life, studying soil fungi and especially soil actinomycetes, organisms almost entirely neglected by others that became a mainstay of his subsequent work. His first public presentation, with R.E. Curtis, another graduate student was Bacteria, Actinomycetes, and Fungi of the Soil, to the Society of American Bacteriologists (later to become the ASM) at Urbana, Illinois, in December 1915.
Waksman obtained a Ph.D. in biochemistry in two years, working with T. Brailsford Robertson at the University of California at Berkeley, and returned to Rutgers in 1918 as a lecturer in soil microbiology. He married his childhood sweetheart, Bertha Deborah Mitnik (Bobili), on 4 August 1916. She went with him to California and they returned to live, first in New York, then in New Brunswick, N.J., close to Rutgers. Their only child, Byron Halsted, was born 15 September, 1919.
When Waksman began work in his own laboratory, microorganisms were of known importance in medicine as causes of disease, in public health in connection with sanitation problems such as water purification, in traditional food processing (making of bread, cheese, wine, beer, and vinegar) and agriculture (fertility of the soil). They were responsible for food spoilage and, on a larger scale, for degradation of all animal and plant remains, returning the fundamental building blocks carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen to the air and soil in the great cycles of Nature. They were yet to show their value in industrial production of vitamins, enzymes, and antibiotics.
The first phase of Waksman's research dealt with the extension of his work on actinomycetes and with organisms involved in sulfur oxidation, carried with Jacob S. Joffe and later continued with Robert L. Starkey, who became a lifelong associate and friend. He regarded the isolation of Thiobacillus thiooxidans (Waksman and Joffe, 1922) as his most important scientific discovery before the antibiotics. In his later work, he was aided by a growing and ever-changing group of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.
Waksman traveled widely in the 1920's and 1930's and carried out systematic studies of peat bogs and composts throughout the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. He became an adviser on the commercial development of composts, particularly for mushroom growers. He developed a consultative relationship with many industrial concerns that produced enzymes, vitamins, and other products from fungal and bacterial sources. He was thus a forerunner of the entrepreneurs in today's highly developed biotechnology industry.
In 1931, Waksman developed a laboratory for the study of marine microbiology at the Oceanographic Institute, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where he and some of his students worked each summer over the next twelve years. His work on protecting ship bottoms against fouling, in collaboration with the U.S. Navy, represented a significant contribution to the U.S. war effort. Waksman served as chairman of the War Committee on Bacteriology, under the aegis of the Society of American Bacteriologists, and was elected president of this society in 1941.
In 1939 Waksman and his colleagues undertook a systematic effort to identify soil organisms producing soluble substances that might be useful in the control of infectious diseases, what are now known as antibiotics. Waksman was stimulated to initiate this program by the discovery of tyrothricin by his former student Rene Dubos. His own profound knowledge of all classes of soil microbes, the actinomycetes in particular, made such a move almost inevitable and the growing threat of World War II provided an additional rationale for his involvement. He developed simple screening techniques and, guiding graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, applied these to a variety of samples of soil and other natural materials. Within a decade ten antibiotics were isolated and characterized, three of them with important clinical applications: actinomycin in 1940, streptomycin in 1944, and neomycin in 1949. Eighteen antibiotics were discovered under his general direction.
Waksman was an extraordinary scholar and bibliophile. He was author or co-author of over 400 scientific papers and various obituaries and reviews, as well as twenty-eight books. His most notable books include Enzymes (1924), with W.C. Davison; Principles of Soil Microbiology (1927); The Soil and the Microbe (1931), with R.L. Starkey; Humus (1936); Microbial Antagonisms and Antibiotic Substances (1945); My Life with the Microbes, an autobiography (1954); The Conquest of Tuberculosis (1965); and the posthumous The Antibiotic Era (1975). His scholarship as a scientist and teacher was embodied in a massive compendium, the second edition of his Principles of Soil Microbiology, published in 1932. This book, refused by many publishers who could not believe that it had a market, became a best-seller and dominated the field for several decades. He later wrote biographies of two of his scientific heroes: Winogradsky, a lifelong friend he regarded as the true founder of soil microbiology (1953), and W.M.W. Haffkine, a Jewish scientist whose contributions some decades earlier were turned into tragedy by bigotry and persecution (1964).
The many awards and honors that were showered on Waksman after 1940 culminated in the Nobel Prize and the Star of the Rising Sun, bestowed on him by the emperor of Japan in 1952. Other notable honors included membership in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Legion of Honor (Commander) of France, the Order of the Southern Cross (Commendatore) of Brazil, the Grand Cross of Public Health of Spain, corresponding membership (later foreign associate) of the French Academy of Sciences, the Lasker Award, the Amory Award of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Trudeau Medal of the National Tuberculosis Association (U.S.).
Selman Waksman died in 1973 and is buried in the local churchyard in Woods Hole where many of his scientific peers also lie.