Contact: Robert Mehnert
"Joshua Lederberg is a seminal figure in the world of molecular biology and he has deservedly earned the sobriquet, 'father of molecular genetics,' " said Dr. Lindberg. Lederberg's research was influenced by the scientific findings of Dr. Oswald Avery, another pioneer geneticist, (whose papers are already electronically housed in Profiles in Science).
Lederberg won the Nobel Prize in Medicine at age 33 for scientific work started at age 20, which showed that bacteria can in fact, reproduce through sexual recombination. Although Lederberg was "astonished" to receive the prize, his diary entry for October 26, 1958, the day he heard he had won it, also records some of his fears: "On the whole I'm a little afraid the fuss and bother more than outweigh the egotistic satisfactions, the cash and the prestige factors that might help in getting my lab going."
"It seems there was never any doubt that Joshua Lederberg wanted to be a scientist," said Dr. Alexa McCray, who directs the Profiles in Science project. "By age 7 he had already written a short essay on his scientific dreams." In the two-sentence essay, written in slanting longhand, he says, "I would like to be a scientistist of mathemmatics like Einstein. I would study science and discover a few theories in science." By 12 years of age he was reading biochemistry and medical textbooks and his teachers allowed him to sit at the back of the class room quietly studying as they couldn't answer many of his questions.
In college his dedication to scientific study continued. His college transcript shows that while he received an "A" in biochemistry, he could only muster a gentleman's "C" in physical education.
After winning the Nobel prize, Lederberg continued to make creative discoveries. He became interested in computers in the late 1940s and collaborated with Stanford University computer scientists in the mid-1960s in the development of DENDRAL, one of the first "expert" or "knowledge-based" systems. He was also involved with artificial intelligence and was very interested in the dissemination of scientific knowledge via electronic networks.
Lederberg also took a keen interest in the search for life on other planets and coined the term "exobiology," the study of life outside the atmosphere. He was concerned that future space flights from earth could inadvertently contaminate and ruin bacterial ecosystems in outer space.
A leading voice in expressing his concern about biological warfare, Lederberg forwarded a petition to President Johnson concerning US policy on biological and chemical warfare.
The scientist continued to receive accolades throughout his scientific career and in 1990 he was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Bush.
Lederberg's online papers include laboratory notebooks, manuscripts, personal correspondence with other scientists, diary entries, newspaper clippings, video interviews , and several photographs.
Profiles in Science (http://www.profiles.nlm.nih.gov/) was launched last September by the Library. It is a continuing project and the Library plans to announce each new collection as it is added to the site.