Dr. Byron H. Waksman

The MBL announces with deep sadness the death of Byron H. Waksman, M.D., on June 17. A distinguished immunologist who pioneered the field of neuro-immunology, Dr. Waksman was a close associate and friend of the MBL for nearly eight decades. His many contributions to the MBL community included founding the Pathogenesis of Neuroimmunologic Diseases course in 1990, and founding and directing the Science Journalism Program in 1985. As president of the Waksman Foundation for Microbiology, he provided consistent support to several MBL programs, including the Microbial Diversity summer course, the Science Journalism Program, and the Living in the Microbial World teacher workshops.

Byron Waksman was born in 1919 in New York City. His family summered in Woods Hole, where his father, Selman, had a marine microbiology lab at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. As a youth, Byron attended the Children’s School of Science and also volunteered at the MBL Supply Department (now the Marine Resources Center), where he was responsible for delivering starfish and other marine animals to MBL researchers.

Byron attended Swarthmore College, where he earned a B.A. in 1940. He earned his M.D. at the University of Pennsylvania in 1943. He was drafted into the army following his graduation and served as part of the post-war reconstruction government in France and Germany. After returning to the United States, he did postdoctoral work in Rochester, Minnesota. He went on to academic careers at both Harvard / Mass General Hospital and at Yale School of Medicine.

Dr. Waksman began his research career investigating experimental allergic encephalomyelitis, an artificially induced condition resembling multiple sclerosis, and similar inflammatory diseases of the nervous systems, which he termed “auto-immune” diseases. From studying the immunopathologic process, Dr. Waksman and his students went on to demonstrate the role of the thymus in both immune responses and tissue-specific tolerance. They are also credited with discovering several of the first and most important cytokines and circulating lymphocytes known as T-cells.

After retiring from academia, Dr. Waksman became vice president for research programs and medicine at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, where he streamlined the granting process and worked hard to improve communication between the board, patients and their families, and the media. One of his greatest achievements was to create a series of yearly workshops that brought together physicians and scientists involved with MS, from basic research to clinical treatments. The workshops and their published summaries successfully promoted cooperative work and substantially moved the field of MS research and treatment forward.

Following his “second retirement” from the MS society, Dr. Waksman taught middle school students at the Salk School of Science in New York, an experience that convinced him of the urgent need to improve science education at the pre-college level. As he stated, “The public understanding of science is crucial to the long-term health of the research enterprise on which our medical knowledge rests.”

Dr. Waksman’s father, 1952 Nobel Laureate Selman Waksman, founded the Waksman Foundation for Microbiology in 1951 using the patent royalties from the isolation of streptomycin, the first antibiotic for the treatment of tuberculosis. Byron directed the family foundation for more than 30 years, and during this time he focused on improving scientific communication, both among scientists themselves and to the general public. After initiating the MBL Science Journalism Program, he created a similar international journalism program (EICOS) at the Max Planck Institute in Munich. He also launched a decade-long K-12 science education initiative focused on training classroom teachers to use hands-on microbiology exercises; the pilot workshop was held at the MBL in 1997.

Dr. Waksman travelled widely over the course of his career, attending scientific conferences and as a visiting investigator and/or teacher in France, Britain, Brazil, Venezuela, and Germany. From 1961 onward, he served almost continuously on advisory panels of various government agencies, the World Health Organization, and the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as on the editorial boards of scientific journals in the field of immunology. He became president of the American Association of Immunologists in 1970 and was a member of many other societies in this field. Dr. Waksman published more than 350 papers and articles in leading scientific journals on subjects in his areas of interest in immunology and science communication.

Dr. Waksman’s many colleagues, former students, and friends around the world cite his superlative teaching and the open, cooperative, and international atmosphere in his labs as his greatest legacy.

Dr. Waksman is survived by his wife, Joyce; a son, Peter; a daughter, Nan Schanbacher; and five grandchildren. Memorial services will take place later this summer in Woods Hole and in Lexington, Mass.