Streptomycin was discovered by Dr. Selman A. Waksman (1888–1973), a Ukrainian-born biochemist who immigrated to the United States. Waksman worked as a professor of soil microbiology at Rutgers University in New Jersey from 1918 to 1958. He had studied microorganisms in soil, and after one of his students, R. Dubos, isolated the powerful antibacterial tyrothricin from an organism in soil in 1939, Waksman began a research program to isolate other organisms with antimicrobial action, studying more than 10,000 soil cultures. Waksman developed the generic term antibiotic to cover these organisms.
Contemporary work with penicillin [V] stimulated the search, and in 1943 Waksman identified a strain of organism, Streptomyces griseus, from which he extracted streptomycin. This chemical was found to be active against various bacteria, some of which were insensitive to the effect of penicillin. In particular, streptomycin was found effective against the bacillus of tuberculosis. The Merck & Company laboratories found it was effective against additional diseases and began pilot production of the drug in 1944.
Waksman received the 1952 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for the discovery of streptomycin.
Together with penicillin, streptomycin was widely regarded as a “wonder drug” in the 1950s as numerous infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, and sexually transmitted diseases, that resulted from bacterial infection succumbed to treatment by one or the other of the new drugs.