History of Science

Overview

For the last 25 or so years I have devoted some of my research time to research and teaching on the history of biology. Initially, this was largely devoted to my interests in microbiology and was concentrated on the history of the development of antibiotics and the Germ Theory.

This earlier work has now expanded and I have recently researched the history of evolution and what I have called “The Leeds DNA Story”

My interest in the history of biology began in the late 1980s when I read the available histories of the discovery of penicillin, particularly a short paragraph by Howard Florey on the work conducted in 

Sheffield by Cecil George Paine. This led me to do some research on Paine’s work and later into the overlooked research on penicillin done by Fleming during the mid to late 1930s. While doing the penicillin research I naturally became interested in the history of the discovery of other antibiotics, most notably streptomycin. This led me to find and interview Albert Schatz.

My general interest in the Germ Theory also lead me to research the work of the Scottish Pathologist, John Goodsir ,who got to the Theory before Louis Pasteur and to a local –born doctor, Robert Storrs who recognized that doctors could spread diseases and who recommended hand washing long before Semelweiss did. As with much of my laboratory-based research work, this history research has been both novel and controversial. Finally my last controversial claim is that Hitler’s life was saved by the use of Allied penicillin.

Research

Seeking out the Father of Microbiology and the Man who showed that Doctors Spread Disease.

Our textbooks tell that Louis Pasteur is the Father of Microbiology and that it was his work that demonstrated beyond all doubt that microbes (mainly bacteria) exist and cause disease. It is surprising then that I discovered that a Scottish Pathologist named Sir John Goodsir, while working on stomach diseases isolated a causal agent (a bacterium from a patient’s infected stomach, recognized and named the agent responsible and went on to cure the infection; this being achieved some 20 years before Pasteur’s work.

The recognition that doctors spread dieses and must therefore wash their hands between examining patients is without exception credited to the Hungarian Doctor August Semmelweis. My research however, has shown that others had come to the same conclusions long before Semmelweis. Most notably, a local doctor from nearby Doncaster called Robert Storrs, came to this long before the Hungarian hero. He was so troubled by the idea that he might be spreading infection between his patients that he periodically travelled to the mountains of North Wales to “get the stink blown off of him.” After I had written an article on Storrs I received an email from one of his relatives in Tasmania informing me that he was writing a book on Storr’s work. I had the privilege of talking to John Tooth, who later wrote a book on his ancestor, called Humane and Heroic.

Searching for Albert Schatz-Streptomycin and TB

My success with the story of Cecil George Paine’s contribution to the history of pencilling made me hungry for more historical research. You must remember that then as, now such research is not officially part of my research remit, and although some heads of my department over the years have not supported such studies I have not yet been prevented from doing research work on the history of science, in fact over the last year, or so, I have taught a full semester’s course on the history of biology. Not surprisingly, I am a firm believer that scientist should contribute to the history of their subjects and that that informing science lectures with history often makes science more interesting and relevant to students.

Albert Schatz was also a soil scientist and naturalist
Albert Schatz was also a soil scientist and naturalist

After working on penicillin I next devoted my research on the history of biology to the discovery of another antibiotic, namely streptomycin. Although penicillin was a wonder drug it had no effect on tuberculosis, one of the biggest of all killers in history. Once Fleming and the Oxford Group had demonstrated the power of penicillin scientists around the world began searching for new antibiotics. Not surprisingly many believed that although penicillin was a remarkable antibiotic many other miraculous antibiotics soon to follow. One man who was quick off the mark in this search was the soil microbiologist Selman Abram Waksman. Waksman, a Russian émigré Jew, began a program of research screening the then little studied group of bacteria (which were then thought to be fungi) the actinomycetes. He, and his students, soon discovered the antibiotics, actinomycin and neomycin, but by far the most important of the Rutgers antibiotics was streptomycin simply because, for a short while at least, it was used to cure tuberculosis.

My interest in the streptomycin story began when I read a short account of its discovery, by one of Waksman’s students, Hubert Lechevalier, who discovered the antibiotic neomycin under Waksman tutelage. The text books and history papers, which were available prior to my work on this antibiotic, unequivocally stated that streptomycin was discovered by Waksman alone, and it was he who, also alone, received the Nobel Prize for its discovery. Yet Lechevalier gave an intriguingly opaque account of Waksman’s role in the discovery, mentioning how one of Waksman’s research students who were involved in the work sued Waksman for a share of the royalties. Lechevalier’s account to me sounded like he was hinting that there was more to story than had been told, and that perhaps the student Albert Schatz was not the complete villain of the story as other had suggested. So again, armed only with a short anecdotal account, I began the search for Albert Schatz in the hope that I could one day publish his side of the story.

My search began with Index Medicus. This work was done in the early 1990s when personal computers were relatively primitive (the mouse for example was not ubiquitous!) and Google and other search engines did not exist. Index Medicus was the main way in which medical scientists of the time searched research for papers and with them the academic addresses of the authors. So I began a laborious search for the name, Albert Schatz. It soon became clear that there were two Albert Schatz’s, one was involved with research on new antibiotics and the other championed a, now largely forgotten theory, about dental decay. It soon became obvious that the two names referred to the same person, but I had no recent address with which I could track him down. I therefore began writing to people at Rutgers and to other biologists who were active in the US during the 1940s-50s. I received many comments describing how Schatz had done the dirty on his apparently angelic PhD supervisor, Selman Waksman. I also learned that Schatz was paranoid and for the first time heard the saying “Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they are not out to get you!”

After much effort, I eventually I tracked down Schatz. Although he had spent some time as an academic in Chile, he was now firmly back in Philadelphia, not far from Rutgers University where the discovery of streptomycin had been made. I had assumed that Schatz, having obtained royalties for streptomycin would be rich and living in some splendour. This turned out to far from the truth. After the streptomycin debacle, he had never been allowed to work again in US academia and in order to make living he moved to a university in Chile, where he eked out his diminishing royalties (unfortunately for Schatz, streptomycin proved to be less of a money earner than was initial hoped).

Eventually, I interviewed Schatz at his modest home. Our interview turned out to be both wonderful and enlightening. He related to me a very emotional story of how he had been robbed of the credit and the Nobel Prize for streptomycin and how his supervisor, Waksman, had made a royalty agreement with Merck and was enriching himself, while sending Schatz relatively small amounts of money (doubtless in the belief he was being benevolent). 

Me, Albert Schatz and his wife Vivian (2002)
Me, Albert Schatz and his wife Vivian (2002)

Schatz passed on his files to me and on my return to Sheffield I put together a large paper on the discovery of streptomycin that was clearly closer to reality than was the then standard version. Initially Rutgers, who had supported Waksman and had done much to discredit Schatz. It was with some satisfaction therefore when I attended a public meeting at Rutgers to see Schatz awarded the University’s Gold Medal. I did not linger however, as I was felt that I was clearly the spectre at the feast!

My wife Chris, Vivian and Albert Schatz,April,2002.
My wife Chris, Vivian and Albert Schatz,April,2002.

Albert and his wife Vivian and later their nephew, Carl became good friends and I was happy to write, what I think is fair obituary of his life and work (published in The Independent newspaper) when he died. Righting the streptomycin story gave me a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction,  possibly because, like me he was from a working class background and it was nice to see that the establishment does not win them all! Accounts of the streptomycin story now invariably mention Schatz and he is almost universally recognized as, at least, the co-discoverer of streptomycin.

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