Professor Selman A. Waksman, Bullshit Artist

Or, how to cheat your pupil for fame and fortune.

NY TimesNotebooks Shed Light on an Antibiotic’s Contested Discovery:

As word of the discovery spread, reporters flocked to Rutgers to record the amazing event. But in telling and retelling the story, Dr. Waksman slowly began to drop Dr. Schatz’s name and claim sole credit. He also arranged with Rutgers to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties from the patent that he and Dr. Schatz were awarded; Dr. Schatz received nothing.

Dr. Schatz became aware of the deal when Dr. Waksman started sending him $500 checks — $1,500 altogether — that he said came from funds he had been receiving for the sales of streptomycin. Dr. Schatz wanted to know more, but the professor wouldn’t tell him.

So he turned to an uncle, who found a sharp Newark lawyer willing to take on his nephew’s case. In 1950, Dr. Schatz, who had by then earned his Ph.D., sued Dr. Waksman and Rutgers, and after a year of legal back-and-forth, the professor and the university agreed to a settlement that recognized Dr. Schatz as “co-discoverer” of streptomycin and gave him a share of the royalties.

But the scientific establishment sided with Dr. Waksman, scolding Dr. Schatz for having the effrontery to challenge his professor. And two years later Dr. Waksman alone was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery. Dr. Schatz protested, but the Nobel committee ruled that he was a mere lab assistant working under an eminent scientist. Dr. Schatz disappeared into academic obscurity and died with the full story still untold.

Some people want to pretend that scientists are dispassionately objective and don’t care about money, position, or seeing their name in print, but scientists are human just like everybody else.

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One Response to Professor Selman A. Waksman, Bullshit Artist

  1. Placebo says:

    “Some people want to pretend that scientists are dispassionately objective and don’t care about money, position, or seeing their name in print, but scientists are human just like everybody else.”

    Well said.
    100% agree.