Albert Schatz

Co-discoverer of streptomycin

Friday 04 February 2005 01:00

Albert Israel Schatz, microbiologist: born Norwich, Connecticut 2 February 1920; Professor, University of Chile 1962-65; Professor of Education, Washington University 1965-69; Professor of Science Education, Temple University 1969-80; married 1945 Vivian Rosenfeld (two daughters); died Philadelphia 17 January 2005.

In 1943, at the age of 23, Albert Schatz discovered streptomycin, the first effective cure for tuberculosis, typhoid, tularaemia and plague. It was at Rutgers University, New Jersey, and Schatz was working as a postgraduate student under the supervision of the soil microbiologist Selman Waksman.

Before the introduction of streptomycin, consumptives died or had to endure long periods of discomfort in remote sanatoria; its introduction was followed by the successful introduction of a variety of anti-tubercular treatments.

Largely because he was a postgraduate student, Schatz was denied any credit for the discovery and, unlike Waksman and Rutgers University, he initially received no royalties on the sale of streptomycin. Incensed by this, in 1950 Schatz sued Rutgers and was eventually awarded a share of the royalties; more importantly, he was legally recognised (with Waksman) as the co-discoverer of streptomycin.

The streptomycin controversy did much to improve the lot of graduate students in the United States as, ultimately, regulations were imposed to try and ensure that they received a fair deal on both credit and royalties.

When the 1952 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Waksman alone for his "discovery of streptomycin", Schatz again sought justice, and wrote to many prominent scientists (including the Nobel laureates Alexander Fleming and Howard Florey), hoping that they would intercede on his behalf; on this occasion, however, he was unsuccessful. After years of neglect, his role in the discovery of streptomycin has only slowly begun to be recognised, and in 1994 Rutgers University, realising the error they made in the 1940s, awarded Schatz their highest honour, the Rutgers University Medal.

Schatz wrote some 700 scientific papers and developed the so-called "protease-chelation theory" of tooth decay, an idea that is worthy of revaluation. He also suggested a fascinating theory to explain the death of the dinosaurs.

From 1969 Schatz worked at Temple University in Philadelphia, where he was active in science education. He developed a keen interest in paranormal phenomena and the application of alternative medicine, notably Therapeutic Touch; he was also an active campaigner against the fluoridation of drinking water. He was a keen naturalist and enjoyed the wilds of Vermont, a passion he shared with his wife, Vivian.

Albert Schatz was born in 1920 in Norwich, Connecticut, the son of a Russian émigré father and an English mother, and raised in Passaic, New Jersey. As a boy growing up during the Depression, he witnessed workers being beaten up by the authorities, an experience that made him a lifelong socialist and humanitarian. He was also an active environmentalist and, with his wife, was involved in local welfare, co-operatives and community recycling projects.

Humour played a large part in Schatz's life and he loved poking fun at the over-serious and pompous. He invented the "University of Twerpwyck" (motto: "A laugh a day keeps insanity away") and delighted his friends by awarding them over-the-top degree certificates from this esteemed institution.

He was immensely, yet modestly, proud of his role in the discovery of streptomycin and was rightly insistent that the part he played should be recognised. The streptomycin controversy would have destroyed many a weaker man.

Milton Wainwright

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