Streptomycin, Schatz v. Waksman, and the Balance of Credit for Discovery

A recent article in Nature, arguing that "the misallocation of credit is endemic in science," used Selman Waksman as an illustration, claiming that the true discoverer of streptomycin was one of his graduate students. The article received wide publicity and seriously damaged Waksman's great reputation. What actually happened was that the success of penicillin stimulated Merck to fund research by Waksman, a soil scientist, into the collection of actinomycetes that he had assembled over thirty years. He applied the systematic, uncreative testing techniques that had made the German pharmaceutical industry so successful to these, and streptomycin was discovered within a matter of months. Work in the Mayo Institute then showed that it was marvelously effective against tuberculosis, and Waksman received the Nobel Prize for it in 1952. The test that turned out to be the crucial one could have been carried out by any of several students, but the lucky one was Albert Schatz. He then sued the university for a share of the royalties payable by Merck and also petitioned the Nobel committee to include him in the award. Although he obtained a very substantial out-of-court settlement, this probably damaged his subsequent academic career, and he has never ceased to argue his case for recognition, of which the Nature article is a reflection. To claim that Waksman took credit properly due to Schatz is to fail to understand that once pharmaceutical research had become primarily a matter of large- scale, routine testing, little individual creativity was left in this work. Credit for any successful results must therefore be given to whoever is the originator or director of a particular program. Nature refused to publish evidence that this case could not be used as an example of misallocation of credit for discovery. This in itself illustrates that editors of scientific journals should be every bit as mindful of scientists' reputations as they are of scientific facts.