Selman A. Waksman

Banquet speech

Selman A. Waksman’s speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1952

Your Majesties, your Excellencies, Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I wish to take this opportunity to express my sincere appreciation to the faculty of the Caroline Institute for having conferred upon me this great honor. In honoring me, you are honoring the science that I represent, microbiology. Permit me, therefore, to express my thanks on behalf of my colleagues and associates, who have collaborated with me, as well as on behalf of my wife and son whom you have received so graciously.

From the moment he is born to the moment he dies, man is subject to the activities of numerous microbes. Some attack his body, his crops, and his domesticated animals, as well as all forms of wild life; some destroy his clothing and his habitations, and assail virtually everything else that civilized man has come to depend upon in his daily life, – these are the injurious microbes, comprising both saprophytes and parasites. On the other hand, many microbes, notably those inhabiting the earth under our feet and the rivers, lakes, and seas around us, make possible the continuation of higher forms of life by returning the essential nutrient elements to circulation and through innumerable other processes; many microbes are utilized in the preparation of beverages and foodstuffs, in the retting of textiles, and in a variety of essential industrial processes, – these are the beneficial microbes. In recent years we have learned to domesticate new types of microbes, notably those that produce chemical substances, known as antibiotics, which have the capacity of destroying disease-producing microbes without injuring the host.

In learning to utilize antibiotics for the control of human and animal diseases, the medical and veterinary professions have acquired powerful tools for combating infections and epidemics. Diseases of childhood have virtually disappeared. Other diseases have been brought under control. The Great White Plague, which only 10 years ago was thought to be immune to drug therapy, is gradually being eliminated. Even persons afflicted with those forms of tuberculosis, such as meningitis and miliary, which were nearly always fatal, now have a better than even chance of recovery. Streptomycin pointed a way. Later supplemented with PAS and more recently with isoniazid, it has brought the control of this disease within sight.

With the removal of the danger lurking in infectious diseases and epidemics, society can face a better future, can prepare for a time when other diseases not now subject to therapy will be brought under control. Let us hope that in contributing the antibiotics, the microbes will have done their part to make the world a better place to live in.

I can do no better, in closing may remarks, than to quote from the words of the Founder: “The advance in scientific research and its ever widening sphere stirs the hope in us that the microbes, those of the soul as well as of the body, will gradually disappear, and that the only war humanity will wage in the future will be one against these microbes.”

Prior to the speech, Harald Cramér, member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, addressed the laureate: “Dr Waksman! You have discovered a new and powerful weapon in the deadly battle against one of the oldest foes of mankind, tuberculosis. This battle is as old as medical science and we now have a definite impression that at last the enemy is beginning to yield. If, as we may hope, your discovery will show the way to decisive victory, the gratitude due to you is of the kind that cannot be expressed in words.”

From Les Prix Nobel en 1952, Editor Göran Liljestrand, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1953

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1952

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