From a 1946 issue of the Jewish Bulletin
From a 1946 issue of the Jewish Bulletin

70 years ago this week, the world celebrated a man who ended a previous pandemic

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Covid ravaged the world over the past two and a half years and is still part of our everyday life. But decades before Covid, there was another lung disease that killed less swiftly but just as tragically.

Tuberculosis was once a global scourge that at one point killed one of every seven people in the U.S. and Europe; this author’s own family came, like many others, to California from Brooklyn in search of the salubrious air that was thought to help the incurable disease.

It was incurable, that is, until the discovery of streptomycin.

Seventy years ago this week, on the front page of our paper in 1952, we announced that the Nobel Prize for medicine had been given to a Jewish researcher, Selman Waksman of Rutgers University. He’d been awarded the prize for his discovery of a TB-fighting antibiotic nearly a decade earlier.

“This is the culminating point of my life’s work, begun in 1915 with the study of a humble group of soil micro-organisms, the actinomycetes, which have yielded in recent years some of the greatest benefits to mankind,” he said at the time.

Streptomycin is an antibiotic, on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines, which compiles the most efficacious, safe and cost–effective medicines.

As a tuberculosis treatment, it was a game-changer.

A Refugee’s Contribution Repays America With Wonder Drug,” a headline in our paper in 1946 read.

“Dr. Selman Abraham Waksman, a modest Jewish scientist who did not set foot in America until he was 22, is being hailed by the medical profession as one of our country’s greatest scientists, and a benefactor of mankind. He is the discoverer of streptomycin, which is proving even more valuable than penicillin.”

(The bacteria that causes TB was also discovered by a Jewish scientist, Robert Koch, in 1882.)

However, there is a bit of a scandalous backstory to Waksman’s win. The drug was discovered in Waksman’s lab, but through the work of the — also Jewish — researcher Albert Schatz, who ended up suing Waksman for recognition and royalties. Although he received some money, he never again found work in a major research institution, according to the American Chemical Society.

Waksman, on the other hand, was feted around the country — including here in the Bay Area.

Tuberculosis as a disease has not acknowledged defeat. It is now on the rise again, both here and around the world. According to the WHO, around 10.6 million people fell ill with tuberculosis in 2021, an increase of 4.5 percent from the previous year. Around 1.6 million people died.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.