The Foundation and Its History

  • Overview
  • Life of Selman A. Waksman
  • Past and Present Officers and Trustees
  • Reports

BHWThe Foundation was made possible by the discovery in 1944 of Streptomycin, the first specific agent effective in the treatment of human tuberculosis.  Selman Waksman dedicated half of his personal royalties from patents to create the Foundation for Microbiology in 1951. To view a short film on the discovery, click here.

The Foundation is both a family and professional heritage. Selman Waksman served as the first president of the Foundation, and was succeeded (1970-2000) by his son, Byron H. Waksman, a distinguished immunologist.  The Founder’s granddaughter, Nan Waksman Schanbacher, serves as Vice President and Chair of the Board of Trustees. Other Trustees include leaders of American microbiology. From 2000 - 2007, Frederick B. Neidhardt, Professor of Microbiology at the University of Michigan, served as the Foundation's third president.

The current president is Amy Cheng Vollmer, who assumed office on June 16, 2007. Dr. Vollmer is currently Professor of Biology at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, PA.


Selman Abraham Waksman was born of Jewish parents in the Ukraine on July 22, 1888. He immigrated to the United States in 1910 and graduated from Rutgers University in 1915.  The next year, he became a U.S. citizen and did his master's project in agriculture at Rutgers. He obtained a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of California at Berkeley, and returned in 1918 to Rutgers where he spent his entire scientific career, studying soil fungi and the soil actinomycetes that became a mainstay of his subsequent work.

Waksman traveled widely in the 1920's and 1930's and carried out systematic studies of peat bogs throughout the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. He became an adviser on the commercial development of composts, and a consultant with many industrial concerns producing enzymes, vitamins, and other products from fungal and bacterial sources.

In 1931, Waksman started a laboratory for the study of marine microbiology at the Oceanographic Institute, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. His work on protecting ship bottoms against fouling represented a significant contribution to the U.S. war effort.

Selman Waksman

In 1939 Waksman and his colleagues began a systematic screening program to identify soil organisms that might be useful in the control of infectious diseases, now known as antibiotics (a word coined by Waksman).  Ultimately, eighteen antibiotics were discovered under his general guidance, three of them with important clinical applications: Actinomycin in 1940, Streptomycin in 1944 (the first specific agent effective in the treatment of human tuberculosis), and Neomycin in 1949.

Photo of Grave StoneWaksman was author or co-author of over 400 scientific papers, as well as twenty-eight books.  His scholarship was embodied in the definitive second edition of his Principles of Soil Microbiology (1932).  Many awards and honors were showered on Waksman after 1940, most notably the Nobel Prize in 1952 and the Star of the Rising Sun, bestowed on him by the emperor of Japan.

Selman Waksman died in 1973.

Early History of the Foundation

Dr. Waksman’s experience using his first assignment of streptomycin royalties to help his friend, Dr. S. N. Winogradsky, publish his collected works in soil microbiology convinced him of the need for a foundation, which he established on August 17, 1951.

The overarching theme of Foundation granting has been to support the communication of science through projects/programs that benefit Society as a whole rather than a single individual. The Foundation has supported publications, lectureships and meetings; provision of science facilities; science education and training; the use of contemporary communications technology in teaching; communication between scientists and the public and prizes.

Between 1997 and 2006 the Foundation devoted roughly half of its granting to the improvement of K-12 science education by supporting professional development workshops emphasizing hands-on microbiology exercises for the classroom.

Cooperation with Other Organizations

For many years the Foundation has funded cooperative projects with other, larger organizations.  Among these, many have been with the American Society for Microbiology, including: the Foundation for Microbiology Lectures (1963- 2005), Latin-American Professorships (1971-91), Pre-doctoral and Minority Fellowships programs (1968-87).

A similar cooperative relationship exists with the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, including:  the Course in Microbial Diversity (1975-present), a Science Journalism Program (2008-present), a summer microbiology workshop for middle and high school teachers, (1975-present) and an endowed Selman Waksman Fellowship in Microbiology. In June of 2009, the MBL named a fellowship in the Science Journalism Program for Byron H. Waksman to honor his contributions to the creation and leadership of that program.

The Foundation funds two prestigious prizes: the National Academy of Sciences Selman A. Waksman Award in Microbiology (1968-present) and the Society for Industrial Microbiology Waksman Outstanding Teaching Award (1989-present). The Foundation has also created two awards of its own: The Frederick Neidhardt Lecturer Award and the Byron H. Waksman Award.

FredThe Neidhardt Lecturer Award

The Trustees of the Waksman Foundation for Microbiology have honored Frederick B. Neidhardt, third president of the Foundation (2000-2007), with an award bearing his name in recognition of his service to the Foundation. The Neidhardt Lecturer Award recognizes a senior microbiologist for the excellence of his or her research, as well as for outstanding teaching/mentoring of students. The Neidhardt awardee presents the opening lecture at the biannual Gordon Research Conference on Microbial Stress Response, a field of study to which Neidhardt contributed pioneering work. The lecturer is selected by the conference chair and vice-chair, in consultation with the President of the Waksman Foundation for Microbiology. The awardee receives support to cover registration, accommodation and travel costs for the conference. In 2010, the inaugural Neidhardt Lecturer was Dr. Susan Gottesman from the NIH. In 2012 the Neidhardt Award was given to Dr. Carol A. Gross

ByranByron H. Waksman Award for Excellence in the Public Communication of Life Sciences

In 2009 the Trustees of the Foundation honored former President Byron H. Waksman for his outstanding contributions to science and to the work of the Waksman Foundation for Microbiology. At a reception celebrating Byron's 90th birthday the Trustees unveiled a new award in Byron's name for Excellence in the Public Communication of Microbiology, the subject of Byron's strongest and most consistent interest as President of the Foundation.
Since 2011, the Trustees have requested that the journalists attending the MBL's Science Journalism Program act as a nominating committee for future awardees. In order to broaden the field for nominations, the Trustees changed the name from the Public Communication of Microbiology to the Public Communication of Life Sciences.

BHW Award Winners:

2009 New York Hall of Science: A serious commitment to hands-on microbiology as a permanent part of the museum's exhibits.
2010 Moselio Schaechter:The award-winning blog, Small Things Considered
2011 Dr. David Suzuki: Award-winning radio series It's a Matter of Survival; Long-running TV series, The Nature of Things; Prolific writing; David Suzuki Foundation.
2012 Carl Zimmer:Science Journalist; Author; award-winning blog, The Loom.
2013 Maryn McKenna for her reporting on the CDC and her book Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA
2014 Angela Posada-Swafford for her journalism and her series of bi-lingual children's books on
various scientific subjects

Additional long-term cooperative projects include:  Programs of the Pan-American Health and Education Foundation (1975-86) enhancing microbiological sciences in Central and South America; a Microbiological Resource Center in Senegal with UNESCO/UNEP/ICRO (1983-88); Yale University's Downs Travel Fellowships in International Health (1981-present); a Minority Postdoctoral Fellowship in Tropical Disease Research, with the Rockefeller Foundation and administered by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (1982-93).


Past and Present Officers


Selman A. Waksman (1951-69)
Byron H. Waksman (1970-2000),
Frederick C. Neidhardt (2000-2007)
Amy Cheng Vollmer (2007-present)

Vice President

Rene J. Dubos (1951-59)
Byron H. Waksman (1968-69; 2001-present)
Alice Huang (1988-92)
Nan Schanbacher (1993-present)


Van Wie Ingham (1951-54)
R. Edward Townsend (1988-present)


A. Dudley Watson (1951-54)
Nan Schanbacher (1988-92),
Keith A.Bostian (1993-present)


A. Dudley Watson (1954-69)
Selman A. Waksman (1970-73),
Harry Eagle (1974-81)
Harlyn O. Halvorson (1981-87)


A. Dudley Watson (1951-73)
Max H. Schwartz (1973-81)
R. Edward Townsend (1981-present)


Past and Present Trustees

Selman A. Waksman (1951-73);
Rene J. Dubos (1951-59);
Harry Eagle (1951-81);
Deborah B. Waksman (1957-74);
William J. Robbins (1957-69);
Rollin D. Hotchkiss (1959-82);
Kenneth V. Thimann (1960-91);
Byron H. Waksman (1968-present);
Harlon O. Halvorson (1972-87, 1993-96);
A. Dudley Watson (1973-84);
Arthur Pardee (1974-84);
Bruce Alberts (1975-77);
P. Roy Vagelos (1977-81);
Edward A. Adelberg (1981-88);
J. Oliver Lampen (1981-90);
Herman Eisen (1982-88);
Arnold L. Demain (1985-92);
Alice S. Huang (1985-2013);
Nan Waksman Schanbacher (1985-present);
Keith A. Bostian (1988-present);
Jean E. Brenchley (1988-95);
Jonathon G. Seidman (1988-95);
Sherwood L. Gorbach (1990-2002);
Betty H. Olson (1991-96);
Harold Amos (1992-96);
Peter Waksman (1992-2007);
John A. Breznak (1996-2005);
Barbara H. Iglewski (1996-present);
Frederick C. Neidhardt (1996-present);
Moselio Schaechter (2000-2008);
Amy Cheng Vollmer (2001-present);
Cynthia Needham (2006-present);
Graham C. Walker (2006-present)