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Fillers A paper that changed my life

Dishing the dirt

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: (Published 27 April 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:1017
  1. James Le Fanu, retainer general practitioner
  1. Mawbey Brough Health Centre, London SW8 2UD

    The postwar medical achievement is so eloquent a testimony to the power of science as to make scientific materialists of us all. Few doubt any longer that the natural world in all its wonder and complexity must ultimately be knowable. And just as the power of human reason provided—through the discovery of antibiotics—the means to combat the blight of infectious disease, so too it must inevitably provide explanations and solutions for all that is still obscure.

    And so I thought too until a couple of years ago, when I stumbled across a paper from 1961 by the great Selman Waksman, winner of the Nobel Prize for his discovery of streptomycin.1 Its title, “The role of antibiotics in nature,” may seem innocent enough, but the conclusions are deeply and disturbingly subversive.

    Selman Waksman was born in the Ukraine in 1888 and grew up with two passions—for his mother and the land. “The odour of the black soil so filled my lungs I could never forget it,” …

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