Elizabeth Bugie Gregory’s Contribution to the Discovery of Streptomycin
Certain famous names remain attached to the antibiotics that were discovered during the golden age. But with the antibiotic streptomycin, not every person involved was completely credited for their work. So, this article highlights microbiologist Elizabeth Bugie Gregory who deserves recognition for her role in the discovery of streptomycin.
The First Few Antibiotic Discoveries
In 1909, the first modern antimicrobial, Salvarsan, was found and used to treat syphilis and sleeping sickness. Then in the 1930s, sulfa drugs were developed and used for staphylococcal and streptococcal infections. And the first commercially available, natural antibiotic, penicillin, was mass-produced in the 1940s. It could treat staphylococcal, streptococcal, and meningococcal infections, as well as diphtheria. However, none could treat tuberculosis or other Gram-negative infections, such as bubonic plague, cholera, dysentery, and typhoid.
Streptomycin, a broad-spectrum antibiotic that is highly effective against Gram-negative bacteria and not toxic to animals, was discovered in 1943. It was the first antibiotic that could treat tuberculosis (Figure 1).
Three names appear on the publication that documents the monumental discovery of streptomycin: Albert Schatz, Elizabeth Bugie, and Selman A. Waksman. The presence of Bugie’s name indicates that she contributed to the discovery enough to deserve authorship, not a matter taken lightly. Yet, she did not receive full credit for the part she played.
Elizabeth Bugie Gregory received her bachelor’s degree in microbiology from New Jersey College for Women. And at the time of the streptomycin discovery, Bugie was a master’s student researcher at Rutgers in Selman Waksman’s lab. Although she worked with graduate student Albert Schatz on this important project, he took full credit for the streptomycin discovery. Schatz was listed on the patent, but Bugie was not.
According to her obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bugie had told one of her daughters that "They approached me privately and said, someday you'll get married and have a family, and it's not important that your name be on the patent.”
Waksman ultimately took most of the credit, though, so Schatz filed a lawsuit to ensure he was associated with the discovery and received profits from it. However, after it was resolved, the royalties were split three ways, and Bugie was included: 10% Waksman, 3% Schatz, and 0.2% Bugie.
Still, the name most attached to streptomycin is Waksman: he was even awarded the Nobel Prize in 1952 for the work that led to its discovery.
Figure 1. Streptomycin is a broad-spectrum antibiotic that inhibits microbial protein synthesis. This antibiotic works against both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria and was the first antibiotic to treat tuberculosis.
Elizabeth Bugie Gregory’s Scientific Contributions
Besides streptomycin, Elizabeth Bugie was also involved in developing other antimicrobials, including flavicin, chaetomin, and micromonosporin. After completing her master’s degree and initially continuing research at Rutgers, she took a position at Merck and researched antimicrobials to fight tuberculosis.
Bugie made considerable scientific contributions during her time as a microbiologist. And streptomycin remains an important antibiotic for treating infectious diseases today—it is included in the WHO Model Lists of Essential Medicines.
Keeping Elizabeth Bugie Gregory’s Name Connected to Streptomycin
The discovery of streptomycin changed how we could treat tuberculosis and other Gram-negative bacterial infections. Because of its significance in infectious disease treatment, those involved should be recognized for the parts they played. Besides her name on the publication, Bugie received little credit for her research that helped make this discovery possible. So, by highlighting her here, we hope to help seal the connection between Elizabeth Bugie Gregory’s name and the streptomycin discovery.