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Joshua Lederberg

Portrait of Joshua Lederberg
  • Born: May 23, 1925, Montclair, New Jersey
  • Died: February 2, 2008, New York, New York

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0107
Interview Dates: June 25, 1992 and July 7, 1992 and December 9, 1992
Location: The Rockefeller University, New York, New York
Interviewer: James J. Bohning
No. of pages: 105
Minutes: 450

  Abstract of Interview

Joshua Lederberg begins the three-part interview with a description of his parents, family background, and early years in New York. Lederberg knew from the second grade that he wanted to be a scientist, and he experimented at home with his own chemistry lab. Lederberg cites Albert Einstein as being a positive role model in his formative years. After completing grade school in 1936, he attended the Palestine Conference with his father in Washington, DC. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School at age fifteen. Due to age restrictions, Lederberg had to wait until he was sixteen before entering Columbia University. He spent the semester between high school and college at the American Institute of Science Laboratory. Then, he received his B.A. in biology from Columbia in 1944. While in college, Lederberg did original research with colchicine and worked with Francis Ryan on Neurospora and E. coli. At age seventeen, he enlisted with the U.S. Navy and was placed in the V-12 program, serving as a naval hospital corpsman. While working towards his Ph.D., Lederberg continued his research on bacteria and E. coli. After receiving his Ph.D. in microbiology from Yale University in 1947, he joined the University of Wisconsin as assistant professor of genetics, and he expanded the University's bacteriology research. There, Lederberg first worked on salmonella strains with his graduate students. While with the University of Wisconsin, Lederberg won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1958. Lederberg concludes the interview with a discussion of the University environment during the McCarthy era, reflections on his career decisions, and thoughts on chemical information science.


1944 B.A., Biology, Columbia University
1947 Ph.D., Microbiology, Yale University

  Professional Experience

United States Navy

1943 - 1945 V-12 and Hospital Corps; Ens. USNR

Columbia University

1945 - 1946 Research Assistant, zoology

Yale University

1946 - 1947 Research Fellow, Jane Coffin Childs Fund for Medical Research

University of California, Berkeley

1950 - 1950 Visiting Professor of Bacteriology

University of Melbourne

1957 - 1957 Visiting Professor of Bacteriology

University of Wisconsin

1947 - 1950 Assistant Professor of Genetics

University of Wisconsin

1950 - 1954 Associate Professor of Genetics

University of Wisconsin

1954 - 1959 Professor of Genetics

University of Wisconsin

1957 - 1959 Chair, Department of Medical Genetics

Stanford University School of Medicine

1959 - 1978 Professor of Genetics (also Biology, Computer Science)

Stanford University School of Medicine

1959 - 1978 Chairman, Department of Genetics

The Rockefeller University

1978 - 1990 President

The Rockefeller University

1990 - 2008 University Professor Emeritus


1957 National Academy of Sciences
1958 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine
1960 Sc.D. (honorary), Yale University
1961 Alexander Hamilton Award, Columbia University
1961 Wilbur Cross Medal, Yale University
1961 Proctor Medal, Sigma Xi
1967 Sc.D. (honorary), University of Wisconsin
1967 Sc.D. (honorary), Columbia University
1969 M.D. (honorary), University of Turin
1970 Sc.D. (honorary), Yeshiva University
1979 Litt.D (honorary) Jewish Theological Seminary
1979 Foreign Member, Royal Academy of Sciences
1979 LL.D. (honorary), University of Pennsylvania
1980 Honorary Life Member, New York Academy of Sciences
1981 Sc.D. (honorary), Rutgers University
1981 Honorary Fellow, New York Academy of Medicine
1982 Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science
1982 Fellow, American Philosophical Society
1982 Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1984 Sc.D. (honorary), New York University
1985 M.D. (honorary), Tufts University
1988 Distinguished Service Medal, Columbia University
1989 National Medal of Science
1991 D. Phil. (honorary), Tel-Aviv University
1993 Founding Member, Academie Universelle des Cultures
1995 Allen Newell Award, Association for Computing Machinery
1996 John Stearns Award for Lifetime Achievement, New York Academy of Medicine
1997 Maxwell Finland Award, National Foundation of Infectious Diseases
1997 Mayor's Award in Science and Technology, New York City
1998 Dr. Mil. Med. (honorary), USUHS

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Family Background and Early Education 1

Parents' immigration from Israel to the United States. Early interest in science. Self-discipline in education. Attending Stuyvesant High School. Early experimentation. Reading and focusing on cytochemistry.

Post-High School Years 12

Graduating high school at age fifteen. Selecting Columbia University. Albert Einstein as a role model. Visit to Israel. Studying at the American Institute of Science Laboratory. Home experimentation.

College Years 34

Meeting Barbara McClintock. Advanced level courses. Joining the V-12 military program. Working with Francis Ryan on Neurospora. E. coli research.

Graduate Career 47

Working with Ed Tatum on Neurospora. Going to Yale University. Bacteria research. Marriage to Esther Zimmer. Pondering medical school. Summer at Woods Hole. Importance of scientific history in research. DNA research. Cold Spring Harbor conference.

University of Wisconsin 67

Interest in genetics. Decision to work at University instead of returning to medical school. Developing Genetics Department in the Agricultural School. Support from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). Work on salmonella. Norton Zinder, his first graduate student.

Scientific Career 77

Setting up laboratory. Media attention. Washington Post column. Commercial consulting with Bristol Laboratories. Summer at Berkeley. McCarthyism.

Final Thoughts 88

Funding. Continuing research. Citation indexing. Fulbright scholarship in Australia.

Notes 93

Index 97

  About the Interviewers

James J. Bohning

James J. Bohning is professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he was a faculty member from 1959 to 1990. He served there as chemistry department chair from 1970 to 1986 and environmental science department chair from 1987 to 1990. Bohning was chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1986; he received the division’s Outstanding Paper Award in 1989 and has presented more than forty papers at national meetings of the society. Bohning was on the advisory committee of the society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program from its inception in 1992 through 2001 and is currently a consultant to the committee. He developed the oral history program of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and he was the foundation’s director of oral history from 1990 to 1995. From 1995 to 1998, Bohning was a science writer for the News Service group of the American Chemical Society. He is currently a visiting research scientist and CESAR Fellow at Lehigh University. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.

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