On a summer's day in 1943, a young scientist at Rutgers discovered an antibiotic that would change millions of lives.
But Albert Schatz, who died in West Mount Airy in 2005, was denied credit. His name never appeared on the Nobel Prize given for that work.
That's the little-known story told in Peter Pringle's new book, Experiment Eleven: Dark Secrets Behind the Discovery of a Wonder Drug (Walker & Company, 269 pp., $26).
And there's a widow who remembers, and a grandson conquering cerebral palsy to create a documentary film honoring his wronged grandfather's work.
On Aug. 23, 1943, Schatz, an assistant researcher at what was then the College of Agriculture (now Cook College) at Rutgers in New Brunswick, checked some of his test tubes. Then only 21, he'd been testing various soil bacteria and their activity against tuberculosis. (In the then-primitive lab conditions, he risked his life with open-air preparations of the deadly microbes.) He noted that compounds from two strains of soil bacterium seemed to be effective.
They were producing an antibiotic - then a novel word.
"At the time, there were no effective treatments against tuberculosis," says Pringle, who also penned Food, Inc. "Penicillin had come on, but it wasn't good against this great killer, not only of poor people everywhere, but also of troops fighting the war. Everyone was desperate to find something that would work."
And Schatz had found it. He called the resulting compound streptomycin.
His director at Rutgers was an eminent soil scientist named Selman Waksman, an accomplished biochemist who studied soil microbes, their secretions, and their possible uses against disease.
What happened in the nine years between Schatz's discovery and the 1952 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is a morality tale of science, the quest for glory, and the painful truth.
"Almost as soon as Albert found streptomycin, Waksman started to change the story," says Vivian Schatz, now 87. The widow of Albert, she resides in West Mount Airy. "Here's this young graduate student who'd only been at the lab a few months, was drafted, came back from the war, and he makes this discovery. Somehow that didn't translate into recognition."
Waksman downplayed Schatz's role in finding streptomycin, froze him out of publicity, made independent deals with the then-Merck & Co. drug company and with Rutgers, and badgered Schatz out of having his name on the patent.
He did not tell Schatz of his lucrative deals, saying instead that no money was involved; the work was for the treatment of disease. The idealistic Schatz accepted that at face value. But "Rutgers would make $12 million from 1947-67," says Pringle. "And Waksman started earning enormous sums almost immediately, $400,000 in the first two years of royalties, which was a lot for those days." Rutgers and its publicity department helped Waksman promulgate the revisionist story.
Major university. Major drug company. Major money. "You're looking at the birth of Big Pharma," says Pringle.
Shocked and (in Vivian's words) "feeling betrayed that Waksman would do this to him," Schatz at first did nothing. But then, at the urging of an uncle, he retained a Newark lawyer, Jerome Eisenberg, and sued Waksman and Rutgers.
And won. In late 1950, the suit was settled out of court. Schatz's claim as a discoverer of streptomycin was recognized, and he was to receive $12,000 a year.
In 1952, the Nobel went - to Waksman.
Investigators at the Karolinska Institute looked only at scientific papers that downplayed or neglected Schatz's role. By that time, a stunned Schatz had taken a job at the National Agricultural College (now Delaware Valley College) in Doylestown. (After a peripatetic career at various institutions, he'd join the Temple University faculty in 1969, retiring in 1980.)
Schatz contested the Nobel, but the science establishment didn't like that. Albert Sabin himself said Schatz was behaving like "an ungrateful, spoiled, immature child." And, according to the Nobel rules, an award cannot be altered once given.
A compromise, of sorts, was hit upon. "Stuart Mudd, a professor [of microbiology] at Penn, suggested that, at least in the citation for the award, the announcement, that it say it was given for Waksman's studies 'that have led to the discovery' " of streptomycin, Vivian Schatz says. But the sting of the loss remained.
Waksman would go on to further eminence, founding the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers in 1951. Schatz had a science career, but in the comparative shadows. Streptomycin is still used worldwide against tuberculosis, endocarditis, plague, and large-animal diseases.
Why did Waksman do what he did? "His name should have been on the award, certainly," says Pringle. "But not alone. He came from a European science tradition in which lab directors felt entitled to credit for whatever their lab workers discovered. He was 56, near the end of most science careers. And he could not resist the capper, the Nobel Prize."
Why did Schatz fight? "It wasn't for the money," Vivian Schatz says. "It was for his family. They were hardworking people. His grandparents had come from Russia, and his people worked hard all their lives. Albert thought they deserved it."
So does Carl Sigmond, a student at Haverford College. He is the grandson of Albert Schatz. With fellow students Gebby Kenny and Vanessa Douglas, he took a documentary course with filmmaker Vicky Funari (Paulina). The three students coproduced Discovering Albert, a short documentary of Schatz's quest. It won the Best Coursework Film award at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute's Tri-Co Film Festival on May 2. Sigmond will spend this summer on a "longer documentary film that tells more of my grandfather's story."
All of this is the more amazing, considering that Carl Sigmond has cerebral palsy. He did much of the editing on the first film, "using my adapted keyboard and joystick mouse," he says by e-mail. He now has a camera mount for his wheelchair. This summer, he "will take a trip through New York and New England, shooting interviews." He plans to debut the longer film in the fall at Haverford, with a panel including Pringle and other experts.
His grandfather's story was part of growing up, Sigmond says, a family secret. But "my generation is the first one that is growing up with this story out in the open." When he learned of Pringle's book, "I wanted to add my voice."
Many scientists believe in glory. Prizes and prestige are important in such a hard, hardworking, competitive endeavor. John Horgan, author of The End of Science, says that many accomplished scientists are "driven by ambition and competition, by their need to be recognized for their brilliance." He points to Isaac Newton, "arguably the greatest scientist ever," but also, with "insane fervor," jealous of German mathematician Gottfried Liebniz, his competitor in inventing calculus.
"The question," says Horgan, "should be not why scientists lie and cheat, but why they don't more often."
The story never fully came out until English scientist Milton Wainwright contacted Schatz in 1989 for an interview. After wary beginnings, Schatz eventually unburdened to Wainwright. "It all came out," Vivian Schatz says, "all the hurt." The full story at last appeared in a 1990 Wainwright book. Schatz died in 2005.
Does Vivian Schatz think Albert has finally gotten his due? "Oh, yes," she says. "He would be very pleased by this book, and all the attention it's directing to this story."
For his part, Carl Sigmond wants to make sure even more people know "what a wonderful and loving person he was, who cared about the well-being of humanity."
Vivian Schatz tells of her husband Albert's discovery of streptomycin at www.philly.com/schatzEndText
Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter, @jtimpane.