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In 1943, Albert Schatz, a young Rutgers College Ph.D. student, worked on a wartime project in microbiology professor Selman Waksman's lab, searching for an antibiotic to fight infections on the front lines and at home. In his eleventh experiment on a common bacterium found in farmyard soil, Schatz discovered streptomycin, the first effective cure for tuberculosis, one of the world's deadliest diseases. However, Waksman took credit for the discovery and secretly enriched himself with royalties from the ...
In 1943, Albert Schatz, a young Rutgers College Ph.D. student, worked on a wartime project in microbiology professor Selman Waksman's lab, searching for an antibiotic to fight infections on the front lines and at home. In his eleventh experiment on a common bacterium found in farmyard soil, Schatz discovered streptomycin, the first effective cure for tuberculosis, one of the world's deadliest diseases. However, Waksman took credit for the discovery and secretly enriched himself with royalties from the streptomycin patent. In an unprecedented lawsuit, young Schatz sued Waksman, and was awarded the title of "co-discoverer" and a share of the royalties. But two years later, Professor Waksman alone was awarded the Nobel Prize. Schatz disappeared into academic obscurity.
For the first time, acclaimed author and journalist Peter Pringle unravels the intrigues behind one of the most important discoveries in the history of medicine. The streptomycin patent was a breakthrough for the drug companies, overturning patent limits on products of nature and paving the way for today's biotech world. As dozens more antibiotics were found, many from the same family as streptomycin, the drug companies created oligopolies and reaped big profits. Pringle uses firsthand accounts and archives in the United States and Europe to reveal the intensely human story behind the discovery that started a revolution in the treatment of infectious diseases and shaped the future of Big Pharma.
"Peter Pringle has done it again. The story of Experiment Eleven is amazing, but no more so than his brilliant reporting, narrative verve and cool command of scientific ideas." —Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind
"Peter Pringle’s excellent book Experiment Eleven details how a simple discovery dominated and remodelled the lives of both these two scientists. It tells of a bitter legal fight over credit and a misallocated Nobel prize. And, like the best of dramas, it reaches outwards, to illuminate scientific behaviour at the time, and forwards, to change our perceptions of scientific ethics today." – Peter A. Lawrence, Current Biology, Vol 22 No 7
"Riveting history of the discovery of one of the most important drugs of the last century…. [Pringle] skillfully relates an important tale of a life-saving scientific discovery tarnished by egotism and injustice."—Publishers Weekly
"Pringle tells a complex tale of scientific intrigue…. A gripping account of academic politics and the birth of the pharmaceutical industry." —Kirkus Reviews
"Pringle exposes the roles of personality, power, and the pharmaceutical industry in the process of medical research. Even in science, the truth can be tricky." — Tony Miksanek, Booklist
According to the famous German physicist Arnold Berliner, scientists are "a cross between a mimosa and a porcupine": one part bubbly, intoxicating sweetness and one part prickly brawler. Along with their commitment to the intellectual pursuit of truth, to the great benefit of humankind, scientists know that the main ingredient in their career broth is Realpolitik. Without patronage come no rewards.
Consider Arnold Berliner himself. Having lost his position at the German scientific magazine he founded in 1913 due to persecution of "non-Aryans" by the Nazis, he took his own life in 1942, the day before his scheduled evacuation to an extermination camp. The accomplishments of his lifetime, which included German influence over all manner of scientific endeavors in the 1920s and '30s, were also nearly destroyed by the Nazi machine.
Indeed history, even of science, is written by the winners.
In Experiment Eleven, by Peter Pringle (author of Food, Inc.), we see another tragedy of scientific politics unfold against the backdrop of New Jersey in the twilight of World War II. A mentor, Dr. Selman Waksman, betrays and reduces his student Dr. Albert Schatz to career rubble as Waksman seeks to claim all credit and related cash for the discovery of the wonder drug Streptomycin, which halted the onward march of tuberculosis (TB).
But as Pringle unfolds what seems a straightforward story, he offers manifold glimpses into issues of class, ethnicity, corporate duplicity, the genesis of the pharmaceutical industry, and the way blockbuster drugs have reshaped our world.
Modern-day readers can scarcely relate to the suffering spread by tuberculosis, a disease caused by slow-growing bacteria. It loomed over the Industrial Revolution like the Black Death in the Middle Ages and was responsible for 25 percent of all deaths in Europe at its peak. The affliction, also known as "consumption," devoured all classes of society indiscriminately and was reflected in the cultural flow; recorded in novels, artwork, and Jacob Riis's photos of Lower East Side tenements (where it was called "the tailor's disease"). For decades, TB was the leading cause of death in the United States. In 1920, for example, every person living in America knew someone who had died of the disease, and both World Wars I and II helped spread it further.
Fear of contracting tuberculosis (and polio) struck fear into all levels of society. It carried off the working-class and the elite, claiming among its many victims Keats, Thoreau, Chekhov, and Kafka. Vastly more survived TB's lung ravages only to die of yet something else in their weakened state. Worst of all, there was no cure.
Enter into this landscape in 1942 two soil scientists at Rutgers University, Drs. Selman Waksman and Albert Schatz.
Waksman, an upper-class Russian-Jewish immigrant, committed himself to microbiology with a Ph.D. at Cal Berkeley and moved back to New Jersey after World War I to essentially start the Department of Soil Microbiology at Rutgers. His hope was to solve the world's biggest problems through control of its smallest living organisms. Through his fluency in German and Russian he was able to consume the scientific journals of Europe, which were then leading the world of microbiology, and push forward the modernization of American science. His friendship with George Merck, CEO of the pharmaceutical company and head of the War Research Service (which initiated the U.S. biological weapons program in WWII), gave him the financial patronage and equipment he needed — a perfect blend of industry and government — to perform the impossible and discover an antibiotic treatment for tuberculosis in the bacteria in a chicken's throat.
For this, Waksman would become the first and only Rutgers professor to win the Nobel Prize. His name and achievement would be memorialized in the university's Selman Waksman Institute for Microbiology.
It's a great story: ambitious immigrant makes good and saves world. But, says Pringle, it is a supremely manufactured tale. In fact, Albert Schatz, a doctoral student whose kinship and loyalty to Waksman was based in their common ethnic and Garden State backgrounds, was the person who isolated and cultured the bacteria and first produced the drug Streptomycin.
For this, he would receive a Ph.D.
As Peter Pringle lays out in these pages, Schatz would then struggle over the next seven years to unravel the subterfuge Waksman employed to bypass his junior colleague and claim both the credit and a patent. It would end in a lawsuit against Rutgers that finally acknowledged Schatz's role in a settlement, but not in the popular lore. When Waksman was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1952, specifically for Streptomycin, Schatz was unable to rewrite the pages of the famous and fashionable tale, despite protests lodged with the king of Sweden.
Waksman would hardly mention Schatz's name for the rest of his life, even to the Smithsonian as it documented the discovery for historical purposes. The first narrative that was established about the discovery of Streptomycin became the accepted one. It also has stubbornly been resistant to change over the course of the last sixty years. (On a long coast-to-coast flight recently, a scientist renowned for his discoveries in the field of immunology sat at my side, chatting. As we talked about the points of his HIV research, he casually said hat "the discoverer of Streptomycin was a guy named Selman Waksman." I raised an eyebrow.)
All of this reads like I, Claudius with lab coats. But it is hardly a unique situation in the world's scientific community. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, the vanquishers of polio, another scourge of mankind, famously disliked each other and belittled one other's accomplishments. The Wikipedia page on "Nobel Prize controversies" lists dozens of similar accounts in medicine, chemistry, and physics. For many scientists, the drive to publish your findings first and to thwart others in their pursuit of your answers is all-encompassing; too much collaboration may threaten the procurement of tenure and grants.
Pringle's book may help to correct the historical record. Schatz was given a medal by Rutgers for his discovery only in 1994, several decades after Waksman's death, and then only begrudgingly. Science is full of long memories and sharp elbows.
But Experiment Eleven raises a long-deserved glass — make it a mimosa — to Albert Schatz.
Marc Parrish is a marketing executive in technology, an entrepreneur, and an avid observer of the Silicon Valley zeitgeist. He has held senior roles with major brands including Palm and Barnes & Noble, and founded multiple well-known start-ups. You can follow him at twitter.com/marc_parrish_.
Reviewer: Marc Parrish
Part I The Discovery
1 Zones of Antagonism 3
2 The Apprentice and His Master 8
3 The Good Earth 17
4 The Sponsor 26
5 A Distinguished Visitor 38
6 The Race to Publish 48
7 A Conflict of Interest 59
Part II The Rift
8 The Lilac Gardens 71
9 The Parable of the Sick Chicken 78
10 Mold in Their Pockets 86
11 Dr. Schatz Goes to Albany 93
12 The Five-Hundred-Dollar Check 99
13 A Patent That Shaped the World 107
Part III The Challenge
14 The Letter 117
15 Choose a Lawyer 125
16 The Road to Court 137
17 Under Oath 143
18 The Settlement 164
Part IV The Prize
19 The Road to Stockholm 175
20 "A Dog Yapping at the Heels of a Great World Figure" 182
21 The Drug Harvest 195
22 The Master's Memoir 202
23 The Copied Notebooks 205
Part V The Restoration
24 Wilderness Years 213
25 The English Scientist 223
26 A Medal 228
Posted June 5, 2012
Thought-provoking description of an important medical discovery made by a graduate student under the direction of a highly-experienced senior scientist.
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