Mt. Airy scientist’s discovery saved millions of lives
by Len Lear
Not many human beings on earth can honestly claim that something they did was responsible for saving millions of human lives. But West Mt. Airy resident Albert Schatz, who died of pancreatic cancer at 84 in his home in January of 2005, did just that. And this humble humanitarian never got the proper credit for his astonishing achievement.
In fact, according to a just-published book by author Peter Pringle, “Experiment Eleven: Dark Secrets Behind the Discovery of a Wonder Drug” (Walker & Company, 269 pp., $26), Schatz was not only denied credit for the world-changing antibiotic he discovered, but astonishingly, his name never appeared on the Nobel Prize that was awarded for the discovery.
Schatz, the son of poor Jewish farmers in Connecticut, while working on a master’s degree in soil microbiology at Rutgers University in 1943, extracted a compound from the fungus Actinomyces griseus which halted the growth of many virulent bacteria cultured in test tubes, including the bacilli that caused tuberculosis.
At the time Schatz was being paid $10 a week as an assistant researcher in the lab of Selman Waksman, his microbiology professor at Rutgers. Schatz tested hundreds of soil micro-organisms for anti-bacterial activity. He finally discovered in the throat of an infected chicken and in a compost heap the fungus which halted the growth of many virulent bacteria, including some known to resist penicillin.
Schatz tested the compound on a patient with tubercular meningitis because no one had ever survived the disease. But after this patient was treated with streptomycin, he survived and his health improved. The compound discovered by Schatz was reproduced in the lab at the Mayo Clinic as streptomycin, the first antibiotic ever found to be effective against tuberculosis. It was also the first effective treatment for bubonic plague (“The Black Death”), which had also killed countless millions in horrible, unspeakable ways for centuries. His discovery also stimulated the fruitful search for other micro-organisms in the soil that secrete antibiotics.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Schatz’ discovery. According to the World Health Organization, tuberculosis has killed millions of human beings annually at least since the days of ancient Egypt. (In the past 20 years or so, tuberculosis has reared its ugly head again, killing large numbers of people anew, in part because of the HIV virus, which reduces the resistance of the body to the TB bacilli’s infection.)
When I first met Dr. Schatz in the 1960s (he earned his doctorate from Rutgers in 1945), it was over our mutual opposition to the Vietnam War, not his historic discovery. In fact, he was so modest that he never mentioned his scientific accomplishment, which I did not learn about until years later.
“We all have an obligation to fight injustice,” he said at the time, “as long as we are healthy enough in mind and body to do so. When we have an opportunity to relieve suffering, we must do so.”
Despite the esteem Schatz was held in by fellow scientists, he lived in virtual anonymity in West Mt. Airy, never seeking center stage but always helping those less fortunate. Schatz volunteered at Weavers Way Co-op, for example, and at the Happy Hollow soup kitchen in Germantown. He also would collect used furniture and give it to inner-city families. “I don’t want it mentioned in the paper,” he once told me. “It’s no big deal. Many people do a lot more.”
Dr. Schatz’ contributions to humanity did not end with streptomycin. In 1946 his research led to the discovery of nystatin, an antibiotic that controls fungus and yeast infections. Dr. Schatz was head of bacteriology at Philadelphia General Hospital in the early 1960s, and in later years he was a professor at the University of Chile Medical School, Washington University in St. Louis and Temple University, from which he retired in 1981.
After his retirement, Dr. Schatz became an outspoken advocate of alternative medicine and spiritual healing, partly because of a whiplash injury he suffered in an auto accident and a lower back injury caused by a fall. “On three occasions,” he once told me, “spiritual healing was very helpful when conventional medical treatment gave me little if any relief. This motivated me to apply my research background to the study of spiritual healing. At first I was skeptical because scientists at the time did not generally accept such a thing, but I could not deny my own personal experiences.”
Dr. Schatz also taught a workshop for Mt. Airy Learning Tree entitled “Dowsing for Health and Spiritual Healing.” He taught students how to “dowse” (use a divining rod to find underground water), another practice usually treated with contempt by scientists. “You can dowse subtle energy fields of the human body,” he said, “and these subtle energy fields are involved in regaining and maintaining health.”
My wife, Jeanette, another West Mt. Airy resident who, by sheer coincidence, also has a doctorate degree (in education) from Rutgers University, took Dr. Schatz’ course on dowsing. “First of all, he was a wonderful teacher, very sensitive and enthusiastic,” she declared. “Furthermore, I was so impressed that a famous scientist would explore something that most scientists regard as voodoo. And he proved that it really worked. He showed that there is energy behind what you can see, and this energy can be harnessed for the benefit of your health. He followed his heart. He was not only a pioneer with streptomycin but also with bridging the gap between the physical and the metaphysical.”
Tragically, Dr. Schatz never got the official recognition he deserved for discovering streptomycin. His professor, Selman Waksman, received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1952 for “his discovery of streptomycin,” although Dr. Schatz insisted that Waksman did none of the research and almost never even came into the lab. (It was standard practice for many years for professors to take credit for the research of their students.)
According to Pringle’s new book, Waksman did not tell Schatz of his lucrative deals that resulted from the discovery of streptomycin, and Schatz did not know otherwise. But “Rutgers would make $12 million from 1947-67,” Pringle said in a recent interview with a reporter. “And Waksman started earning enormous sums almost immediately, $400,000 in the first two years of royalties, which was a lot for those days.”
Dr. Schatz lobbied the Nobel Prize Committee to be included in their prestigious honor, but he was turned down. Rutgers University finally did give him a medal that reads: “The worldwide impact of this discovery is now part of medical history.”
Dr. Schatz is survived by his wife of 60 years, Vivian (nee Rosenfeld), who is now 87 and still lives in West Mt. Airy. The couple met with Vivian was a microbiology undergraduate at nearby New Jersey College for Women (today Douglass College). “Albert worked such long hours,” Vivian said Tuesday. “He was completely dedicated to finding a cure for tuberculosis.” The couple had two daughters, Linda Schatz, mother of one who lives in Mt. Airy, and Diane Klein, mother of three who lives in center city.
One of the Schatz’ grandchildren, Carl Sigmond, a student at Haverford College, along with fellow students Gebby Kenny and Vanessa Douglas, has made a documentary film, “Discovering Albert,” about the streptomycin saga. It won the “Best Coursework Film” award at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute’s Tri-Co Film Festival earlier this year. What makes Sigmond’s accomplishment even more remarkable is that he has cerebral palsy and thus had to do much of the film editing with an adapted keyboard and joystick mouse while in his wheelchair. Carl is currently working on a longer film about his grandfather.
Vivian has made a brief video about the betrayal of her husband, which can be seen at www.philly.com/schatz