Joshua Lederberg

By Bodmer, Sir Walter; Ganesan, Ann | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Joshua Lederberg


Bodmer, Sir Walter, Ganesan, Ann, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


23 MAY 1925 * 2 FEBRUARY 2008

WHEN JOSHUA LEDERBERG (known to friends and colleagues as Josh) died on 2 February 2008 the world lost one of the most extraordinary scientists of the twentieth century. It is difficult to write an adequate memorial for him, or to convey on paper the outpouring of admiration and affection expressed in written and oral presentations by experts in widely diverse fields of inquiry. Even listing his various interests and achievements is a formidable task, while adequately evaluating the importance of his contributions to science and society is almost impossible.

As the founding father of bacterial genetics, he was the first to demonstrate conjugal transfer of genetic markers in bacteria. Together with his associates, he went on to make many more discoveries that laid the foundations of molecular genetics. For this work he received a Nobel Prize in 1958, sharing the award with G. W. Beadle and E. L. Tatum. While retaining an interest in bacterial genetics, he went on to explore and make seminal contributions to numerous other disciplines, including exobiology (a term he coined), the application of computers and artificial intelligence to chemistry and medicine, and the epistemology of science. He advised U.S. presidents and international organizations on a wide variety of issues, and devoted a prodigious amount of time and effort to the task of informing policy makers and the larger public on important scientific matters. Joshua Lederberg was a man not only of towering intellect, but also of impeccable integrity and dedication to human welfare.

THE EARLY YEARS

Joshua Lederberg was born 23 May 1925, in Montclair, New Jersey. He was the firstborn of the three sons of Zvi Hirsch Lederberg, an Orthodox rabbi, and Esther Goldenbaum Lederberg. Before World War I, Esther's father had fled to the United States from Safed, in what was then Palestine and is now Israel, in order to escape from the Turks. He became a rabbi in Brooklyn and sent money back to his family in Palestine. His family, however, was unable to join him due to the war and its aftermath, and they remained in Palestine.

Esther and Zvi were married in 1924, a marriage arranged by their parents. They opened a clothing store in Haifa but shortly thereafter emigrated to New Jersey, where Zvi became rabbi of the congregation in Montclair. Zvi was well educated, having more of a seminary education than a university or a collegiate one. He had been viewed as a brilliant scholar and in fact had been sent to the United States for studies. Fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, he would have studied English and acquired some Yiddish. He had acquired entry rights to the United States upon his study trip to New York City in 1921 (Bohning 1992). Although they initially lived in Montclair, six months after Joshua was born the family moved to Washington Heights in Manhattan, where his father took a position in a small Orthodox synagogue, Ahavat Israel. Virtually penniless when they arrived in the United States, the rabbi and his wife struggled to make ends meet. According to Lederberg, his mother was a heroic soul in many ways. His father was ill during most of Lederberg's upbringing and his mother had to work very, very hard to help keep the family together.

Joshua's younger brother Seymour was born 30 October 1928. According to Josh, "His presence introduced me to executive responsibilities, whilst my parents were fully occupied bringing home what must not be called the bacon." Seymour recalls, "[Josh] treated me as his first student and he [was] my first mentor after my parents."

As the eldest son, Josh was initially expected to become a rabbi like his father; however, while still very young he developed a keen interest in science, and this guided his life's work. In second grade (at age seven) he wrote, "What I would like to be. I would like to be a scientist of mathematics like Einstein. I would discover a few theories in science. …

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