Loss of a giant: Joshua Lederberg


Joshua Lederberg passed away on Saturday.

Joshua Lederberg, Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist who shaped the field of bacterial genetics, and served as chair of The Scientist’s advisory board since 1986, died on Saturday (February 2). He was 82.

Lederberg shared a Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine in 1958 for the discovery that certain strains of bacteria reproduce by mating, thereby exchanging their genetic material. This overturned the idea held at the time that bacteria did not warrant genetic study and set the field of bacterial genetics into motion.

Lederberg truly was a visionary, and along with his ex-wife, Esther (who died just over a year ago), really jump-started the field of microbial genetics (and indeed, made it much easier to study genetics, period), winning a Nobel prize for his genetic work when he was only 33. Years later, he teamed up with Carl Sagan to raise awareness about microbes in space, and was an advocate of science communication and sound policy (serving as an advisor for multiple presidents). In recent years, he’s spoken out about antibiotic resistance and bioterrorism, among other topics, and always emphasized the importance of basic research in microbiology. He could also give a helluva interesting talk, judging from the few times I’ve seen him speak. He was truly a living legend, and the void he leaves is palpable.

More info and access to papers at the here at the National Library of Medicine. Image from here.


Sad news. I had not seen Josh for many years but I vividly remember my visit to his lab in the summer of 1964. I was an assistant to James Crow, who was visiting Josh’s lab that summer. I had a desk among Josh’s programmers. Josh had studied computers briefly but intensively not long before. At about 4pm each day he would burst into the room, and go around asking all his programmers what they had been doing. They would say “I’m trying to do X” and he would immediately reply “That won’t work because of Y” or “Yes, that is the right method”. Then he would leave and they would program furiously all the next day trying to catch up with Josh. They rarely succeeded in getting ahead of him. It was impressive.

Never knew him personally, but in my molecular genetics class I came across his work on genetic transfer and never forgot the impression it caused on me. RIP to a great man and scientist.

My only personal “encounter” was hearing him speak eloquently on the threat posed by bioterrorism at an afternoon lecture he gave at Rockefeller University a few years ago. Speaking without notes, I still recall that he spoke with ample conviction regarding what needed to be done. I believe that our high school alumni association’s website (www.shsaa.org) has some additional biographical information on him.

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This page contains a single entry by Tara Smith published on February 5, 2008 10:27 PM.

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