Experiment Eleven: Deceit and Betrayal in the Discovery of the Cure for Tuberculosis, by Peter Pringle, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99, 288 pages
Surrounded by Petri dishes in a crude basement laboratory at an obscure New Jersey agricultural college, a young scientist worked single-mindedly throughout the summer of 1943.
Albert Schatz, honourably discharged from the US army because of a spinal deformity, now channelled his energies into finding a treatment for the infections that were killing many of his fellow soldiers. None was worse than tuberculosis, against which the new wonder-drug penicillin was useless.
Schatz slept in a greenhouse, living off little more than eggs and milk, indifferent to the fact that thanks to wartime austerity he had been re-employed by Rutgers College at a fraction of his former pay.
Within three months, he had concluded what he described in his notebooks as “Experiment 11”, the basis for streptomycin, a treatment that would soon be saving thousands of lives. It was a breakthrough that should have kick-started his scientific career. Instead, it festered into a source of life-long frustration and bitterness that led to a lawsuit and public relations battles.
In Experiment Eleven, journalist Peter Pringle describes how, in an office above Schatz’s lab, sat Professor Selman Waksman, a man who gave “the impression of an eccentric academic absorbed in lofty scientific principles”. But Waksman, true to his belief in rigid academic hierarchy and his status as a member of a Russian immigrant family that was socially superior to Schatz’s, rarely descended to the laboratory below. While acting as a fatherly figure, he bullied his junior into signing away all rights, while secretly cutting a deal with drug company Merck. Waksman – and Rutgers College – became rich and renowned.
The story of Experiment 11 and its repercussions contains much that sounds uncannily contemporary in medical research and pharmaceuticals. It begins with the serendipity of random experimentation with naturally occurring microbes in the soil until one showed the potential to kill tuberculosis. It embraces the academic rivalries fought out in the positioning of the two men’s names in esoteric research journals. While Waksman was generous in initially crediting Schatz, he went on to rewrite the drug’s history, downplaying the role of his assistant, falsely claiming personal credit for the context, methodology and creation of the very word “antibiotic”. He even wrote out a copy of Experiment 11 in his own hand to exaggerate his centrality.
Meanwhile, Merck’s hold on the drug’s intellectual property rights secured it millions of dollars in revenues, triggering a debate still familiar today over how far patents help or impede research and hand control to vested interests. Journalists – most all too willing to swallow Waksman’s reworking of the tale – do not emerge well. Nor does Rutgers College, which “spun” the story of its professor and refused to acknowledge his co-discoverer.
The Smithsonian in Washington ignored Schatz’s pleas to present a more balanced version of events. And the Nobel committee was dogmatic, awarding Waksman alone its medicine prize in 1952. Rather than revising its nomination to jointly credit his co-discoverer, it tweaked the citation to fudge the issue.
All of this is well told, but Pringle hardly “unravels the intrigues … for the first time” as the book blurb claims. At least two previous publications have given Schatz his due in recent years, prompting begrudging acknowledgments from the Smithsonian and Rutgers.
When British microbiologist Milton Wainwright exposed the history and tracked down Schatz in 1989, Schatz broke down, saying: “You are the first individual in science in 45 years who has ever expressed a serious interest in finding out what happened from my point of view.”
The two main characters are now dead, their rival views drawn from letters and legal briefs. But Pringle could have quoted more directly from Schatz’s widow, Waksman’s son and others still alive today. He might even have made more of his own “eureka moment”: the chance unearthing of Schatz’s missing notebook – a fact that he buries away in the acknowledgments. He should also have said more on Merck’s clinical trials and the impact of streptomycin. Nevertheless, he has made a useful popular addition to a necessary rebalancing of history.
Andrew Jack is the FT’s pharmaceuticals correspondent