It’s 1943 in Florida, and a bright young farm boy named Albert Schatz is in the US army medical corps, spending endless hours on a ward, holding the hands of soldiers dying of tuberculosis. Schatz hadn’t been allowed into any of the top universities, because they had Jewish quotas, so he was forced to make do with a degree in soil chemistry from an obscure land-grant university in New Jersey. But that was enough, after his experiences in the army hospital, to lead him to spend his free time digging in the swamps outside, searching for micro-organisms that could somehow kill the infections he saw.
An injury discharged him from the army, and once back at the New Jersey university – Rutgers – he continued his hunt. He was registered for graduate study, and his supervisor, Selman Waksman, let him work in the basement of the main laboratory, under the strict condition that he was