Selman Waksman was born on July 22, 1888, to Jewish parents in Nova Pryluka, now Vinnytsia Oblast, Ukraine. He immigrated to the United States in 1910, shortly after receiving his matriculation diploma from the Fifth Gymnasium in Odessa, Ukraine, and became a naturalised American citizen six years later. Waksman attended Rutgers College (now Rutgers University), where he graduated in 1915 with a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) in Agriculture. He continued his studies at Rutgers, receiving a Master of Science (M.Sc.) the following year. During his graduate study, he worked under J. G. Lipman at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station at Rutgers performing research in soil bacteriology. Waksman was then appointed as a Research Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, from where he was awarded his Doctorate of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Biochemistry in 1918. Later he joined the faculty at Rutgers University in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology.
Waksman coined the term antibiotics. It was at Rutgers that Waksman's team discovered actinomycin, clavacin, streptothricin, streptomycin, grisein, neomycin, fradicin, candicidin, candidin, and others. Two of these, streptomycin and neomycin, have found extensive application in the treatment of infectious diseases, with streptomycin being the first antibiotic to cure tuberculosis. As it became obvious that the royalties from streptomycin, soon to be fortified by the sales of neomycin, would represent millions of dollars, Dr. Waksman started to think about strengthening general microbiology at Rutgers. At a meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Waksman Foundation of Microbiology, held in July 1951, it was resolved that the Foundation should make available to the University $2,300,000 for the proposed Institute of Microbiology. On June 7, 1954, the official dedication of the new Institute took place, two years after Dr. Waksman received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of streptomycin. He was also its first director.
At its opening, the Institute was an impressive 302-foot long Georgian Colonial style building overlooking the golf course of the University. It harbored 33,000 square feet of usable space which included a lecture hall seating 200 people, a library with 7,000 volumes, a fermentation pilot plant with vessels ranging in size from five to 300 gallons, and long-gone amenities, such as a dining room with a kitchen, a living room and a museum. The bulk of the remainder of the royalties received from the sales of these antibiotics were then used to partially support the Institute. Dr. Waksman remained the director during its first four years of existence. The naming of the Institute after him was accomplished only after his death on August 16, 1973. In 1985 the American Chemical Society (ACS) designated the research on antibiotics by Selman Waksman as a National Historic Chemical Landmark.
In 1985, Dr. Joachim Messing became the reseach director and in 1988 its fourth director after Dr. Lampen (1958-1980) and Dr. Pramer (1980-1988). Dr. Messing, a world-renowned specialist in recombinant DNA technology, was recruited not only to direct the development of molecular biology at the Institute, but also to coordinate all efforts in this field at Rutgers. Major new initiatives under him cover computational and structural biology and further emphasis on molecular genetics of the regulation of gene expression and biomolecular interactions. The Institute expansion has stimulated the introduction of interdisciplinary programs with chemical and biochemical engineering, chemistry, computer sciences, and plant sciences. Evolution of the research mission from the early days to today has led from a diversity of disciplines centered around antibiotics to the unified discipline of molecular genetics with a more diverse set of biological problems. Today, the Institute's mission is to conduct research in microbial molecular genetics, developmental molecular genetics, plant molecular genetics, and structural and computational biology. It also is a catalyst for general university initiatives, a life science infrastructure, undergraduate and graduate education, and a public service function for the State of New Jersey.
For more information, please visit the American Chemical Society and view the electronic booklet below "Waksman Institute of Microbiology 1954-1984" by Hubert Lechevalier.