Over the past 125 years, we’ve seen the world change through the power of medicine and invention.
While each pivotal milestone has been unique, one thing they have in common is that we haven’t done it alone. At Merck, we have always believed that great medical breakthroughs rely on teamwork – from within and outside of Merck – and our history has proven it. We are proud to have worked in partnership with companies, academics, governments, patient organizations, healthcare professionals, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), multilateral organizations and others in the private sector -- to help improve lives around the world and continue to solve some of the world’s most serious illnesses.
In the early 1940s, Merck entered into an important partnership that would help treat those affected by one of the deadliest diseases in history: tuberculosis. In the early 1900s, tuberculosis, also known as the “The Great White” plague, killed one out of every seven people in the U.S. and Europe. In 1944, with support from Merck chemists, Dr. Selman Waksman and his colleague Albert Schatz of Rutgers University reported the discovery of the first effective antibiotic against tuberculosis.
Dr. Selman Waksman
Waksman received support from Merck chemists, use of the testing facilities at the Merck Institute in Rahway, N.J., and assurance that pilot plant facilities would be available for producing substances. In exchange, Merck received patent rights to any processes that Dr. Waksman developed. Dr. Waksman, later concerned that he had "turned over valuable public-health processes to a single organization for commercial exploitation," asked Merck to abandon these valuable patent rights.
Given the many people suffering and dying from this disease, Merck president George W. Merck looked beyond issues of short-term profitability and turned over the patents to a Rutgers foundation, so this breakthrough antibiotic could be licensed to multiple manufacturers for production. To quickly respond to one of the most urgent health care needs of the time, Merck constructed a streptomycin plant in Elkton, Va., and immediately began designing a large-scale production process for the antibiotic. Merck became the first company to achieve large scale production of streptomycin in April 1946.
Dr. Selman A. Waksman (left), John Holcombe, plant manager (center), and Dr. Edward J. Nolan, branch plant supervisor (right), watching the construction of the new streptomycin building at the Elkton, Va., plant.
As a result of Dr. Waksman’s collaboration with Merck, it only took three years to take the antibiotic from discovery to mass production – a major feat for the industry and the lives at stake. As Dr. Waksman remarked in his 1952 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine:
“With the removal of the danger lurking in infectious diseases and epidemics, society can face a better future, can prepare for a time when other diseases not now subject to therapy will be brought under control.”