University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

The Cure for Tuberculosis: Streptomycin

"Scene d'octobre: la jeune pointrinaire," Le journal illustre, no. 34, Octber 2-9, 1864, p. 269

“Scene d’octobre: la jeune pointrinaire,”
Le journal illustre, no. 34, Octber 2-9, 1864, p. 269
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.


It was not until the 1940s that researchers found a cure for tuberculosis.

Streptomycin. In 1943, a graduate student Albert Schatz isolated streptomycin — a bactericidal antibiotic effective against a virulent strain of tuberculosis — in a tiny basement laboratory at Rutgers University. The research was part of the work of Dr. Selman Waksman, who late, alone, received the Nobel Prize in 1952 for the discovery. In a 1947 trial paid for by Merck Pharmaceutical Co., streptomycin was shown to be effective against tuberculosis in the skin, bones, lung, meninges, joints, and genito-urinary tract and against several other infectious diseases. Merck later turned over the rights for streptomycin to Rutgers University, which licensed several major laboratories to produce the drug for medical use.

Streptomycin began a new era of medical treatment for tuberculosis. Patients with the disease could now be cured (although sometimes with lingering damage), and tuberculosis finally began to lose much of its stigma as a death sentence and a disease of degenerates.

Curing and preventing. Because tuberculosis was widespread — and endemic in some parts of the world — it took decades to cure current cases and prevent as many new cases as possible. Armed with effective antibiotics, the health care team could concentrate on identifying all those who tested positive on tuberculin tests and prevent them from progressing to full-blown tuberculosis and on ensuring that patients took the full course of antibiotics.

The rate of infection varies widely around the world today. In many Asian and African countries, 80% of the population tests positive in tuberculin tests, and increasing numbers of those infected progress to the full disease because many have weakened immune systems from AIDS or drug use. In the United States, 5-10% of the population tests positive and only about 25,000 new cases are identified each year. Approximately 40% of these new cases are in immigrants from countries where tuberculosis is endemic.

Drug-resistant strains. It was clear early on that streptomycin produced drug resistant tuberculosis, and the same was true of later anti–tuberculosis drugs. Multi–drug–resistant and extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis are now growing problems around the world, and tuberculosis has resurfaced as a major public health concern.

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Notice: This exhibit was created by Normajean N. Hultman, Historical Collections Assistant. For permission to reproduce any of the text or those images owned by Historical Collections and Services or to make comments or suggestions, please contact a member of Historical Collections.