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January 12, 2012

Much is made of a possible analogy between the case of Jules Hoffmann and Bruno Lemaitre and that of Selman Waksman and Albert Schatz ("Did Hoffmann take the Nobel for the team?", 22/29 December).

Readers should know that Peter Lawrence's argument that Schatz was unjustly denied the Nobel prize is highly contentious and rests in part on the claims made by Schatz himself in a lifelong campaign for recognition. Waksman, awarded the prize in 1952 for the discovery of streptomycin, managed a large-scale and systematic programme for the isolation and testing of antibacterial agents. The evidence suggests that it is also plausible that the work Schatz did might have been carried out by another student had the work been assigned by Waksman to them.

The issue of the credit in the case is now one of scholarly dispute. The notion of a "moment of discovery" is hardly appropriate for much of modern science, of which Waksman's programme is an early example. Even if there were such a moment, would it show where credit belongs? Should historians seek the name of the ship's boy who shouted "land ahoy!" as the true discoverer of a continent as opposed to the captain who commanded the ship? And should the captain's lack of contribution be shown by the fact that he never visited the crow's nest?

Alexander Bird, University of Bristol

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