Merck Honors Research Microbiologist H. Boyd Woodruff, Ph.D.

Dr. Woodruff is a pioneer in the field of microbiology and a key part of Merck’s history.

On January 19, 2017, Dr. H. Boyd Woodruff passed away in New Jersey at the age of 99.

Dr. Woodruff is a legend in the field of microbiology and played a pivotal role in Merck’s research laboratories at the dawn of the antibiotic era. He is known for the discovery of actinomycin -- a chemotherapy medication used to treat a number of types of cancer -- as well as developing fermentation programs for the commercial production of penicillin, streptomycin and Vitamin B12, among other products. An elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, he spent his entire professional career at Merck after receiving his Ph.D. from Rutgers University in 1944. Here, we reprint some of Dr. Woodruff’s own reminisces about his upbringing in New Jersey, his time at Rutgers under the tutelage of Nobel-Laureate Selman Waksman, and his illustrious career at Merck, thanks to an interview with him in 1989 and stored in the Merck archives.

On his time at Rutgers…

"I was interested in chemistry, but I majored in agriculture because at that time New Jersey had no state university and the only state courses eligible for reduced tuition were either the agriculture course or the engineering course. [Woodruff was the son of a farmer.] The agriculture course was a way of getting into chemistry, really. My dad, I'm sure, would have preferred that I come back and take over the family farm."

On his first meeting his mentor Selman Waksman, a Rutgers professor whose research into organic substances—largely organisms that live in soil—and their decomposition, promoted the discovery of Streptomycin and other antibiotics (a word he coined)…

"Because of my upbringing in South Jersey, I had had very little contact with foreigners. Almost all of the foreigners in South Jersey in our area were Italian. Waksman, of course, was a Russian, had an accent that was entirely different from any accent I had ever heard. Dr. Waksman's first lecture dealt with the fermentation of sugars and the energy yield from sugars. I remember coming back to my two roommates and saying "Gosh, this is the best course I've ever had. This is going to be wonderful!" I had no contact with him until shortly before I graduated when I was searching for opportunities for graduate work. Waksman called me over and said that he had an opportunity for me to stay on and do graduate work with him in microbiology if I wished to do so."

On being in the right place (Rutgers) at the right time and discovering actinomycin…

"Among the eleven or so students that Waksman had, I was fortunate to be his personal assistant because at that time he would normally work in the laboratory about half a day and the other half day he would be in the office. So during half a day, I was making culture media up for him and doing odds and ends and working directly with him at the lab bench. And then the other half, I was working more or less on my own on assignments that he had given me. So it was something he was tremendously interested in himself and because I was his personal assistant, I was the one it fell to carry the work along. So after the first six months, I switched over 100% to antibiotic surveys. Very early on, we got a very active compound out of an actinomycete. This really started the ball rolling. That substance was actinomycin."

On how Waksman discovered Streptomycin…

"I was at Rutgers only about six months when the first information on penicillin became available to Waksman. I think it was a combination of two things. One — he had read the literature so he knew what was happening in the penicillin area but also he had been called in by Merck, which had become very interested in setting up a penicillin fermentation. Second - his own interest in products produced by microorganisms. He had always been tremendously interested in why pathogens die out in the soil. He had had earlier articles pointing to the fact that millions of people over the years had died of tuberculosis and all these TB germs were entering the soil. Why weren't they still there? Why wasn't the soil a very dangerous thing to touch? He had always understood that the pathogens in the soil had for one reason or another disappeared. He had thought about it, and written about it but never really came up with a feeling that antibiotics were major products produced by soil microorganisms. So he had all that background knowledge and suddenly was made aware by reports of work someone else had done that here was a valuable product coming out of a soil microbe. And the streptomycetes had always been his pet organisms. He was the one who had discovered many of them initially, and he had developed their classification procedures when he was a graduate student. That's why I believe he came in to the lab and said "My gosh. Look at what these boys have done with a mold. My streptomycetes will do even better. Let's get started."

On his first taste of Merck…

"So, when we had discovered actinomycin in the laboratory and it seemed extremely exciting to us as a very active entity, Waksman made arrangements to produce large quantities of actinomycin in the Merck facility. I went up to Merck with Waksman and we inoculated vessels. That was my first contact, probably half-way through my graduate program. Merck had an assay laboratory, so you could do experiments all day long and send the samples off and somebody would do the assays for you. There is no question that in the long run Merck had very, very much to offer to speed one's work, but in the first phases of it, it was really a frustrating experience. I'll tell you, I was there because I had to be — because Waksman told me to be there, but I would have preferred to be someplace else. But by the time the summer came, I had learned my way around Merck and I was very happy, so when I had received my degree and they asked me to stay on, I was happy to stay because I was enjoying myself immensely by then. When I first went there, they had paid me at a lab technician level … $175 a month."

Dr. Boyd Woodruff in 1982.