Lederberg, Joshua 1925-2008

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Lederberg, Joshua 1925-2008


See index for CA sketch: Born May 23, 1925, in Montclair, NJ; died of pneumonia, February 2, 2008, in New York, NY. Geneticist, molecular biologist, educator, administrator, columnist, and author. Lederberg was one of the founders and early pioneers of genetics, genetic engineering, molecular biology, and exobiology (a word that he coined to describe the biology of outer space) as they are known today. As such, he was also an early and vocal critic of biological warfare and its potential for terrorism, along with the limited means of response agencies to handle large-scale emergencies. Many of these often-outspoken opinions were published in his Washington Post column "Science and Man" between 1966 and 1971. In 1952 Lederberg and a colleague were able to document that bacteria genes did not spread solely through the simple division of cells, as had been thought; they also multiplied through a reproductive process similar to sex that enabled them to evolve, for example to develop resistance to antibiotic medications or, in a more positive scenario, to respond to genetic engineering efforts aimed at the eradication of genetic diseases. For that discovery he shared the 1958 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. It was an early triumph in a long and extraordinarily productive and wide-ranging career. Lederberg was committed to the use of science for the good of mankind, wherever it led, and believed that responsible science could improve social well-being, preserve the environment, reduce armed conflict, and promote world peace. Lederberg was an early advocate for the development of computers and artificial intelligence as tools for genetic engineering and also to scan for signs of life on Mars. During the heyday of manned space missions, his was an early voice for caution regarding the contamination of space by earth-spawned microbes and, conversely, the potential for danger on earth if extraterrestrial germs existed and could be carried back by returning space vessels. Lederberg also recognized the ongoing danger posed by rapidly evolving and fast-moving viruses, along with the woefully inadequate state of preparedness for containing and neutralizing them. Lederberg was teaching genetics at the University of Wisconsin as early as 1948. He taught at Stanford University from 1959 to 1978, where he also directed the Joseph P. Kennedy Junior Laboratories for Molecular Medicine, then served as the president of Rockefeller University in New York City from 1978 to 1990, and as an adjunct professor at Columbia University begin- ning in 1990. Lederberg's many contributions to science resulted in prestigious awards, notably an Eli Lilly Award for outstanding work by a young scientist, the National Medal of Science in 1989, the Allen Newell Award of the Association for Computing Machinery in 1995, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006. Lederberg wrote a handful of scholarly books in the 1950s and 1960s. He edited several others, including Encyclopedia of Microbiology (1992), Emerging Infections: Microbial Threats to Health in the United States (1992), Biological Weapons: Limiting the Threat (1999), and Toxicology for the Next Millennium (2000).



Lederberg, Joshua, and others, The Excitement and Fascination of Science: Reflections of Eminent Scientists, Rockefeller University (New York, NY), 1990.


Chicago Tribune, February 9, 2008, sec. 4, p. 10.

Los Angeles Times, February 5, 2008, p. B8.

New York Times, February 5, 2008, p. C20.

Times (London, England), February 6, 2008, p. 59.