Experiment Eleven: Dark Secrets Behind the Discovery of a Wonder Drug

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 the 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, the new book 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 that 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, it 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 TB, and both World Wars I and II helped spread the disease further.

Fear of contracting tuberculosis (and polio) struck fear into all levels of society. It carried off the working and the elite, claiming among its many victims Keats, Thoreau, Chekhov, and Kafka. Vastly more survived its lung ravages only to die of something else due to 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 ethnich and Garden State backgrounds, was the person who isolated and cultured the bacteria, and who 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 thay “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 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.