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PERSPECTIVES IN BIOLOGY AND MEDICINE Volume VII · Number 4 · Summer 1964 AUTOBIOGRAPHIC SKETCH SELMAN A. WAKSMAN, Ph.D.* I have been an avid reader ofbooks and an enthralled listener to tales since early childhood. Certainly by the age offive I had absorbed countless tales ofolden times that either were read to me by my father and my mother or told to me by my grandmother. As I sat on cold winter evenings, leaning over a table dimly lit by a kerosene lamp, with my head in my hands, my desire for more stories appeared to be insatiable. Soon after my evening meal I finished my homework and, moving conveniently near the stove heated by straw or wood, waited until my parents or a visiting relative could proceed with the reading of more stories. This continued until I reached the age ofsix or seven, when I could delve into books myself. I have been a teacher also as far back as I can remember. At first I helped my classmates to learn the Ten Commandments, rudiments ofthe Bible, and simple rules of grammar. Then, together with several other boys aged ten to twelve, I organized a free school to give the poorer children ofthe town some education. These children could not afford private tutors, nor could they go to public schools, for Russia, my birthplace, was in those days very short ofschools, especially forJewish children, who were discriminated against in more ways than one. We young organizers of our school, encouraged by our parents, even collected the necessary money to provide the poorer children with books, paper, and pencils. In my more mature years, when I was trying to earn money to continue my own education , which was becoming more and more expensive, the ability to tutor others in preparation for their examinations in gymnasia or other middle schools provided me with a fairly reliable source ofincome. * Institute ofMicrobiology, Rutgers, The State University, New Brunswick, NewJersey. For a comprehensive biography, see My Life with the Microbes, published by Simon & Schuster, New York, 1954· 377 Upon arrival in the United States as ayouthful graduate ofan accredited Russian gymnasium, I had little difficulty entering college. Here as well, and also during my graduate work at a large university, I found it highly profitable to tutor others less qualified than I, since my earning capacity as assistant to a professor in experimental botany brought me only a very limited income (20 cents an hour), while tutoring yielded much higher compensation. Finally, in my first full position as a lecturer at the university , then as a professor, the ever-growing group ofgraduate students provided me with an opportunity to develop in my lectures my own field of research, a task that I continued with ever-increasing pleasure for nearly four decades. In my relation to my students I always took the attitude ofthe famous Rabbi Schmoel, who, when asked, "How does a single individual accumulate so much knowledge in his lifetime?" replied, "I have learned a great deal from my teachers, they taught me well. I learned more, however , from my friends, who encouraged me, who stimulated me in times ofdepression, and who helped me both financially and morally. But most of all, I owe a debt to my students: they questioned me; they made me feel that I didn't know it all, and thus stimulated me to a further search for knowledge." My scientific activities were largely devoted to studying microbes, particularly the saprophytic and chlorophyll-free forms. First I studied those that inhabit the soils under our feet; then those that occur in the seas around us, in forests and in peat bogs, in composts; finally, those that have the capacity to interfere with the growth ofpathogenic bacteria and fungi and thus bring about their destruction through the antibiotics they are able to produce. When in the fall of1914, as a senior at Rutgers, I had to select a research project for my graduation thesis, I asked my senior professor, Jacob G. Lipman, whether I might undertake a study ofthe distribution ofvarious groups ofbacteria, fungi, andprotozoa in different soils, at different depths, and in different seasons ofthe year. He smiled and said...


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