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Albert Schatz, co-discoverer of streptomycin, dies at 84

Archived article from Feb 21, 2005


Credit: Special Collections and University
Archives, Rutgers
Albert Schatz in laboratory, 1945

Albert Schatz, co-discoverer of the antibiotic streptomycin as a graduate student at Rutgers, died Jan. 17 at age 84. Selman Waksman, with whom Schatz studied, is credited as the other co-discoverer. While working with Waksman, Schatz demonstrated that streptomycin was active against the bacterium that causes tuberculosis.

Schatz first isolated a series of threadlike bacteria known as actinomycetes, which he then cultured and tested for their ability to retard the growth of pathogenic, or disease-causing, bacteria. The actinomycetes did so, and Schatz’s next experiments revealed that the active agent was a new antibiotic, which the researchers named streptomycin. There had been prior discoveries of other antibiotics, such as actinomycin, but they were too toxic to be used in the human body.

Schatz’s role in the discovery of streptomycin was eclipsed by the more senior Waksman, a situation that resulted in litigation that ultimately gave credit to both as co-discoverers.

Tuberculosis, recognized as the world’s greatest killer, responded to streptomycin, but the new drug also proved to be a broad-spectrum antibiotic effective against other pathogens involved in diseases, such as cholera and bubonic plague.

“That one now had a broad-spectrum antibiotic that could work against a wide range of bacterial pathogens is a prime achievement,” said Douglas Eveleigh, professor of microbiology at Rutgers. “The discovery of streptomycin, and other actinomycete antibiotics that followed, resulted in utterly spectacular changes that turned the whole pharmaceutical industry topsy-turvy. In a broad context, the actinomycete antibiotics lengthened the life span of the human population with dramatic effects on qualities of life.”

The Waksman-Schatz streptomycin patent, awarded in 1948, was cited in The New York Times as one of the top 10 discoveries of the 20th century. The patent reaped net royalties rising to $12 million, a major proportion of which was used to establish the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers.

The discovery of streptomycin took place in a lab in the basement of Martin Hall on the Cook campus, which was turned into a museum with historical displays chronicling the discovery of streptomycin and other antibiotics at the college.

In his career, Schatz published three textbooks and more than 700 articles, and received a multitude of awards and medals from a wide range of universities and societies in Europe and the Americas. In recognition of his significant contribution to the improvement of the human condition, he also was awarded honorary degrees from Brazil, Peru, Chile and the Dominican Republic. In 1994, he received the Rutgers University Medal, the university’s highest honor, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the discovery of streptomycin.

Schatz is survived by his wife of 59 years, the former Vivian Rosenfeld, a Douglass College alumna.

A memorial service will be held Sunday, March 6, at 2 p.m. at Green Street Meeting,
45 W. School House Lane, Philadelphia. Memorial donations may be made to the Center for Constitutional Rights, 666 Broadway, 7th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10012.

Return to the Feb 21, 2005 issue

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