When people ask me what I am doing this summer, I tell them that I am getting paid to be a filmmaker. That usually gets their attention, but when I tell them that I am making a documentary about my grandfather, who discovered the first antibiotic effective against tuberculosis, they want to know more. And, you might want to know more, too!
My grandfather, Albert Schatz, discovered streptomycin, the first antibiotic effective against tuberculosis, when he was a 23-year-old graduate student at Rutgers University in 1943. His discovery saved millions of lives and resulted in the closure of tuberculosis sanatoriums around the world. Streptomycin also cured many other gram negative infectious diseases and led to their eradication.
In spite of this important gift to humanity, my grandfather, Albert Schatz, Ph.D., is little known. Following his discovery, his research advisor, Selman A. Waksman, stole credit and won the 1952 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for Schatz’s work. Waksman also received the vast majority of the royalties from the global sale of streptomycin, while Schatz wanted the royalties to be used to make his new antibiotic as freely available as possible for the millions of people dying from tuberculosis world wide.
Only in the past two decades has the story resurfaced in the scientific community and in the mainstream media. In 1989, Milton Wainwright, a professor of molecular biology at the University of Sheffield, England, published the first investigative article on the true story of the discovery of streptomycin. Since that time, other scholarly papers, book chapters, and popular articles have been written on this subject. The first book that recounts this story in detail, Experiment Eleven, by investigative journalist Peter Pringle (author of Food, Inc.), was released in May of 2012, seven years after my grandfather’s death.
I co-produced Discovering Albert, a ten-minute film about my grandfather, in the spring of 2012, as part of Professor Vicky Funari’s Documentary Film Production course here at Haverford. Discovering Albert won the Best Coursework Film Award at the Tri-Co Film Festival in Bryn Mawr, PA, on May 3, 2012 and was mentioned in a front-page Philadelphia Inquirer article about Experiment Eleven.
In my current project this summer, I am expanding this exploration of my grandfather, focusing on memories of Albert Schatz by those who knew him best. I am interviewing friends, colleagues, and former students, and am listening to them tell their stories of how my grandfather impacted their lives. I am making this film this summer through a grant from Haverford College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and the Marion E. Koshland Integrated Natural Sciences Center, and plan to release the film in October of 2012.
This coming Wednesday, Swathmore’s Zein Nakhoda (graduating fall 2012), Haverford’s Larry Miller ’12, and I will be embarking on an 8-day road trip through New Jersey, New York, and New England, filming interviews with people who knew my grandfather, or who have researched his story. We will be interviewing my great, great-aunt, who is still living and who remembers growing up with my grandfather on a chicken farm in Connecticut. We will also be interviewing the former Park Ranger of Ricker Pond State Park in Vermont, where my grandparents used to go camping for three weeks each summer. On the day we interview the ranger, we will also be interviewing Peter Pringle, author of Experiment Eleven.