Filming through New England and the Mid-Atlantic

In my last post, I wrote that I am making a documentary this summer about my grandfather, Albert Schatz, who discovered streptomycin, the first antibiotic effective against tuberculosis, when he was a 23-year-old graduate student at Rutgers University. The picture to your left was taken on my 8-day interview tour that I took at the beginning of July. Two other Tri-College students (Swarthmore’s Zein Nakhoda Dec ’13, and Haverford’s Larry Miller ’12) and I went on this tour, interviewing family members, close friends of my grandfather, as well as investigative journalists and scientific historians who have researched his story. We collected vast amounts of information, memories, and anecdotes about my grandfather, who had many different facets to his life. Each person we interviewed revealed a different side of him.

Our first stop was in Franklin Square, NY, where we interviewed Flora Diekman, my grandfather’s aunt. Flora grew up on the family farm where my grandfather spent much of his childhood. As I was growing up, my grandfather would tell me stories about his time on the farm, and during my interview with Flora, she told some of the same stories. This was during the Great Depression, and although the family barely scraped by, both Flora and Albert had lasting memories of the farm, that stuck with them all of their lives.

On our way north after leaving Flora’s house, we stopped by the site of the old farm. It is no longer a farm anymore; it is a housing development, but as my mother put it when we interviewed her later in the week, when our family goes to that spot, we see past the houses and visualize the farm.

Our next interview was with investigative journalist Peter Pringle, who has just written a book, Experiment Eleven, about my grandfather, how he discovered streptomycin, and the controversy surrounding his loss of the Nobel Prize. Peter worked on the book for three years, often consulting with my grandmother in Philadelphia and going to my grandfather’s archived collection at Temple University. I met Peter when he first came to interview my grandmother but had very little contact with him until the making of this film. It was great to get to know him through the interview and learn details of my grandfather’s story that I hadn’t known.

Our tour through New England led us to meet multiple people who knew my grandfather. We interviewed Hubert and Mary Lechevalier, who were graduate students at Rutgers University a few years after my grandfather left. While at Rutgers, Hubert discovered neomycin, a topical skin antibiotic that is still used today. We also interviewed Peter Berger, who was the park ranger at Ricker Pond Campground in Groton, VT, where my grandparents went camping for twenty summers later in their lives. Before leaving Vermont, we stopped in to see Mary Brewster, another dear friend of my grandfather, who shared many personal anecdotes of him. Here is a sampling of photographs of this leg of our tour, which includes a stop at Ricker Pond.

We headed south, leaving Mary’s way later in the day than we hoped, and arriving at Larry’s house near Rutgers in the wee hours of the morning. With an interview scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m. that morning and setup for the interview to start at 9, we did not get much sleep. The interview, however, went very well. It was with Boyd Woodruff, 94, who had worked as a graduate student in the labs at Rutgers prior to my grandfather being there. Boyd was able to describe for us what the laboratories looked like and how the graduate students searched for new antibiotics among thousands of molds and bacteria.

We interviewed Boyd in Martin Hall, formerly the Administration Building of Rutgers’ Cook Campus. This is the building where my grandfather did his research and discovered streptomycin. Following our interview with Boyd, we were permitted to go in the basement of Martin Hall and film the actual lab where my grandfather worked. It is no longer a lab; it has been converted into a conference room and museum to my grandfather’s professor, Selman Waksman, who stole the credit for my grandfather’s discovery of streptomycin and won the 1952 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. While we were in the lab, we called my grandmother, who used to knock on the basement window of the lab so that my grandfather could go and let her in the back door. She would do her homework in the lab, while my grandfather was attending to his experiments.

We then rushed over to Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus to go to the Special Collections and University Archives. There we saw my grandfather’s actual lab notebooks. These notebooks had been missing for over fifty years. It was only during Peter Pringle’s research, when he was so insistent that every graduate student’s notebooks must be somewhere at the university, that they were found. We spoke with Erika Gorder, the Rutgers Archivist who found the notebooks in a small box labeled “W”. When she opened the notebook to show me, I immediately recognized my grandfather’s handwriting. Below are images of the notebooks, of me and Erika, and of Experiment 11 – the experiment where my grandfather isolated streptomyces gresius, the organism that produces streptomycin.

We returned to Haverford that evening, crashed, and then rose in the morning for two final days of interviews in the greater Philadelphia area. We filmed my grandmother, Vivian Schatz, at her home in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia in the afternoon, and that evening, we drove to Wilmington to interview Alan Tillotson, a naturopathic doctor who knew my grandfather and worked with him on alternative medicine later in his life. The following day, we interviewed my mother and my grandmother in Philadelphia.

About three weeks after we got back, we had one final, and very special, interview. Milton Wainwright, Professor of Microbiology at Sheffield University in England, came to Haverford so that I could interview him for this film. Professor Wainwright was the key who unlocked my grandfather’s recognition for his discovery of streptomycin later in his life. From 1950 until 1989, my grandfather was blacklisted from the scientific community, because he had sued his professor to be named co-discoverer of streptomycin and for a share of the drug’s royalties. It was Professor Wainwright who finally broke that brick wall, came to my grandparents’ home in Philadelphia, and interviewed my grandfather for four days about his discovery of streptomycin. As a result of Professor Wainwright’s research and writings, my grandfather slowly gained recognition for his role in changing medical history. My interview with Milton was filled with emotion, memories, and laughter.

Part way through the tour, I came to a profound realization; I am endeavoring to do two different projects at one time. The first objective is to make a documentary, honoring the life and legacy of my grandfather, telling his story through people who knew and admired him deeply. The second objective that I have come to value equally is that of recording history. All of our interviewees shared so much with us, so many memories of my grandfather and how he influenced their lives. Of course, the vast majority of these memories will not make it into my film, but now my crew and I have captured and saved them for future generations. My grandfather made a huge impression on many people’s lives, something I knew but didn’t really grasp the magnitude of until I worked on this story. That, perhaps, was the biggest gift this interview tour gave to me.

To see a photo essay slideshow by Zein Nakhoda, containing these and many more pictures, click here.

This entry was posted in Documentary Film. Bookmark the permalink.