Theft, lies and medical breakthroughs

peter-pringleThis interview was originally published in COSMOS Magazine, issue 49.

British-born Peter Pringle spent 30 years as a foreign correspondent, writing for magazines and newspapers such as The New York TimesThe Observer and The Atlantic. Now based in New York City, he has authored or co-authored eight books, most recently a story of a famous scientific rip-off that followed the discovery of a cure for tuberculosis. He chats to COSMOS reviews editor Rivqa Rafael about the controversy.

RR: Why did you write Experiment Eleven?

PP: About 10 years ago I started writing books about science and politics. I got the bug for investigative journalism – about politics, war and corruption. I thought I could take on Margaret Mead’s memorable phrase about adding to the sum of accurate information in the world. A friend of mine who’s a dean of environmental sciences at Rutgers University said: “Why don’t you come and have a look in the archives in the basement – there’s a good story about discovery and about relationships between the professor and the student.” It’s not a new genre, but it was a very good story.

It must be quite a common story, where credit for research is taken unfairly.

One could go through the list. Did Pythagoras come up with his theorem or the Babylonians? Did Charles Darwin come up with the idea of evolution or was it Alfred Russell Wallace? Did Marconi invent the radio? I would say no – Alexander Popov, definitely. Yes, it’s a well-trodden field. And then there’s a law, Stigler’s law of eponymy: “no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”. It’s named for Stephen Stigler, a professor of statistics at the University of Chicago; but the idea was sociologist Robert Merton’s.

Selman Waksman was a Russian Jew who fled tsarist Russia in 1910 and took his degree at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He went to California for his PhD and came back to the department of microbiology, which in those days was a very young science. Up the road from Rutgers was the headquarters of Merck, the pharmaceutical company, and they were engaged in producing penicillin for gram-positive [bacterial] infection. They were desperate for something to treat gram-negative infections and gave Waksman a small stipend to set up a lab and search for it. He found several, but they were all too toxic. Along came Albert Schatz, also of Russian Jewish background, and he started working with Waksman as a graduate student. In 1943, he was searching around in a petri dish for something that would produce a decent antibiotic and he found one. And there came streptomycin.

Stealing the credit may be common, but a court case is a much less frequent outcome…

Absolutely. Some say it was the first. In 1944, it became clear that streptomycin was the first effective cure of tuberculosis. Until then, Waksman and Schatz’s relationship had been like that of a father and son. But Waksman began to exclude Schatz from reporters wanting to write up the miracle cure. Waksman wanted Schatz out of the way so he could claim sole credit for the discovery of streptomycin.

But then there’s a knotty question of the patent and the royalties. Initially, Merck was going to get the patent in return for funding Waksman, but for various reasons they couldn’t. So Rutgers took the patent back and, because Schatz was indeed one of the discoverers, there was this famous meeting between professor and student where the professor says “now sign this piece of paper, we’re signing it over to the university and we agree that neither of us will profit from this and it will all go to the good of mankind”. Several years later Schatz found out that Waksman had done a deal to get 20% of the royalties. Schatz had a street-smart uncle, who was a dentist. And he said: “Sue them. Sue the university, sue your professor, get your rightful place in history.” And he did. Schatz was recognised by the court as a co-discoverer of streptomycin and was given a percentage of the royalties and a lump sum – most of which went to his lawyer. Nonetheless, he got about US$12,000 a year for the life of the patent. So he came off OK, except two years later when Waksman alone received a Nobel Prize “for the discovery for streptomycin”.

Was it anything more than oversight?

Well, basically, yes. The prize is given for published papers on the particular topic. They don’t look at back-and-forth disputes between the discoverers, they just judge who was the most important person in that discovery. It’s a bit of that old European hierarchical tradition of the professor taking the credit. Schatz was nominated the same year with Waksman by somebody else, but they didn’t look at it. They regarded Schatz as a bench worker, under the direction of the maestro. In his acceptance lecture, Waksman did not mention Schatz, except in a list of his researchers in an appendix.

Does this kind of thing still happen?

There are lots of disputed Nobels still, aren’t there? The Nobel is the ultimate accolade in science. It separates receivers of the award from all other scientists like no other prize. It creates role models. It’s a very tricky business. The Nobel Committee as set up has a difficult choice to make; in the first place by selecting the right discovery, but then in the second, because the Nobel can still only be awarded to three people. And in biology, particularly now, many more than three people might be involved in the evolution of a discovery.

Coming from a broader journalistic background, how did you come to write about science?

My original degree was a science degree; I was a geologist for a year. I went on a quasi-expedition with a friend, and we drove from London to Tehran. The idea was that there were these ammonites in Dorset in the Jurassic, and if you could find them in the Alborz Mountains, north of Tehran, then you knew that during the Jurassic period, the sea extended across that landmass. And we found them. However, this momentous discovery was not what I thought I ought to be doing with the rest of my life. I’d always wanted to be a journalist. But I retained this love of science and, having written about politics and wars for 30 years as a foreign correspondent, I was very happy to go back to it. I’ve never been to Australia and I’ve always tried to get something to work on there. It might just work out with the next book. I hope so.

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