Ethics as important as microscopes in science

On this Thanksgiving Day (and every day), let us be thankful for those at all levels of scientific research in their laboratories, be they at drug companies, at universities, in the field, in forests, in deserts, on or under oceans, or in the mountains, who work to attack the scourges of mankind through scientific research.
Their work has helped save millions of lives from the ravages of tuberculosis, polio, and other life-threatening diseases and afflictions.
I especially wish to dedicate this article to my brother of blessed memory, biochemist Dr. Frederick H. Kasten, a combination teacher and research scientist who always set a high standard of professionalism, both in his classroom and in his laboratory.
I thought of Fred as I recently read a magazine article in my doctor’s waiting room similar to one he had written in 1987, in Gambit, a New Orleans publication. In both cases, the complaint was opposition to the common practice of the lab director’s insistence that the director’s name be listed as a contributor to whatever results emerged from his lab, taking credit for others’ work.
The writer of the current article, a laboratory research scientist, was also complaining about the fact that during a recent brief discussion with another researcher he had suggested a solution to a lab problem he was having.
After a few months, he noticed, in a science publication, his “associate” taking sole credit for “his idea.”
Irritating at the very least, in the field of scientific research, such “thievery” or “borrowing of ideas without giving proper credit” can be very costly.
One prime example was the 1952 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine awarded to Selman Waksman, a Rutgers University professor, for his discovery of antibiotics, including streptomycin, which saved many lives from the ravages of tuberculosis.
He was later accused by one of his lab assistants, Albert Schatz, of failing to give Schatz proper recognition and credit for doing the actual lab procedures of isolating and producing streptomycin.
While Waksman was given sole credit in the 1952 Nobel Prize for the discovery of streptomycin and other antibiotics, legal proceedings by Schatz forced Rutgers University, where the research took place, to take a closer look at the degree of assistance that Schatz and others gave to Waksman.
While legal proceedings by Schatz resulted in a cash award and recognition as a co-discoverer of streptomycin, the Nobel Committee still awarded sole recognition to Waksman, ignoring the research assistant.
In addition to a resulting cash settlement, Rutgers University eventually reviewed the facts, including interviews with Schatz, recognized his truly significant role in the development of antibiotics, and in 1994 awarded Albert Schatz the University’s highest award, The Rutgers University Medal, as co-discoverer of streptomycin.
The first patients treated with streptomycin were soldiers at a U.S. Army hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan. The first one treated did not survive, the second patient survived but became blind, and the third patient experienced a healthy recovery, eventually becoming well enough to become Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole.
I am surprised that Hollywood has not yet seen fit to capture the drama, the excitement of discovery and intrigue one can find in this true account of personal ambition, scientific competition and discovery.
For those who wish to read more about this true tale of two Jewish scientists with conflicting ethics, I recommend Peter Pringle’s Experiment Eleven, Dark Secrets Behind the Discovery of a Wonder Drug.

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