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Death Notice Guestbook

Obiturary: Elizabeth Gregory / Did McCandless woman get fair shake for role in discovery of streptomycin?

Saturday, April 14, 2001

By Christopher Snowbeck, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The death of a McCandless woman has brought a new twist to an old controversy about who should share the credit for discovering streptomycin, an antibiotic that has saved millions of people worldwide from dying of tuberculosis.

Two male researchers and a graduate student named Elizabeth Bugie published the landmark article in 1944 announcing the discovery of streptomycin in a laboratory at Rutgers University.

But when Selman A. Waksman, the director of the lab, and his graduate student, Albert Schatz, submitted an application that year to patent the discovery, Bugie's name wasn't included.

Bugie's daughter, Patricia Camp of Hampton, recalled yesterday the explanation her mother regularly gave for the omission: "She said, 'They approached me privately and said, some day you'll get married and have a family and it's not important that your name be on the patent.' Then she smiled and said, 'If women's lib had been around, my name would have been on the patent.' "

Waksman won the Nobel Prize for the discovery, and Schatz gained a different sort of notoriety when he sued Waksman over royalties for the medicine. Elizabeth Bugie lived a much quieter life, changing her last name to Gregory when she married in 1950 and raising a family before returning to school for a degree in library science.

When the 80-year-old McCandless resident, formerly of Jackson, Butler County, died April 10, she left behind a tall stack of papers that document her contributions to this golden age of antibiotic discovery. She also left behind an oral history that could open a new chapter in the history of women in science.

"She was a woman in a field of men and she was pressured," said another daughter, Eileen Gregory, who is a microbiologist herself and a professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. "With graduate students, it's a tough line -- who do you give credit to and where does it stop?"

Tuberculosis was one of the leading causes of death around the world in the 1940s. There was no magic bullet for the disease and Waksman decided in 1936 that he would devote his laboratory to find an antibiotic treatment for the illness.

Elizabeth Gregory officially joined Waksman's lab in 1942, having earned her undergraduate degree from a college affiliated with Rutgers that year. Over the next two years, she worked with Waksman on her master's thesis and helped him study hundreds of chemicals produced by microorganisms that inhibit or kill other microorganisms.

One of these organisms was Streptomyces griseus, the microorganism that produces a chemical that kills various bacteria from E. coli to the tuberculosis bug.

Schatz began his Ph.D. work at Rutgers in 1942 and recalls meeting Gregory when he returned to the lab in 1943 after a brief tenure with the armed services -- Schatz couldn't serve because of an abnormal bone structure in his back.

"She was very interested in what she was doing and she was very capable at it," Schatz said.

Schatz did the initial lab work on streptomycin, he said, and Gregory played a key role by independently confirming his results. The fact that Waksman asked her to do the work was a testimonial to her talents and competence, Schatz said.

But Schatz says he feels Gregory's contributions have been adequately recognized.

Mrs. Gregory's name was listed on a number of publications that came out of the lab during that time, Schatz noted. While she did important work in later years on the production of the new antibiotic medicine, Gregory was not involved with a second key paper published in 1944 that showed streptomycin was effective against tuberculosis in test tubes, Schatz said. That alone explains why her name wasn't on the patent, Schatz said.

As for the story about Gregory being pressured to keep her name off the patent, Schatz said he knew nothing about it.

"I never heard that story before, but Waksman might have done so," Schatz said. Waksman died in 1973. "Betty Bugie submitted an affidavit -- that was submitted, of course, by the attorney of the Rutgers Research and Endowment Foundation -- that she did not have anything to do with the discovery of streptomycin."

Gregory's daughters don't buy the argument about the affidavit. Numerous documents in the stack of letters their mother left behind attest to the role she played, they say. And Gregory earned royalties from the discovery for 20 years. Her share, of course, was small compared with that of her male counterparts.

Eighty percent of all royalties from streptomycin went to a research foundation at Rutgers, while the remainder was split among researchers. When Schatz sued Waksman, saying he wasn't getting his fair share of the royalties, the two men agreed that Waksman would get 10 percent while Schatz would get 3 percent. Gregory earned 0.2 percent.

It's the sort of story that might rile a women's historian, but Gregory wasn't the kind to fight for recognition, her daughters said. She did research not for notoriety but for love of science.

"To be perfectly honest, she had a blast doing it," said Eileen Gregory. "I think she thought she never needed to be rewarded for it. She got her reward."

Jonathon Erlen, a historian of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, said women's historians should take an interest in Mrs. Gregory's story. Erlen said the story told by Mrs. Gregory's daughters was certainly plausible given the politics of research -- both at the time and, to some extent, even today.

"The credit usually goes to the 'great man,' " he said.

There will be a blessing service for Gregory at 10 a.m today at 10 a.m. in Schellhaas Funeral Home, 5864 Heckert Road, Richland.

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