Joshua Lederberg

Written for an essay competition about "A Person Worth Knowing."

by Lev Pevzner

In this day and age, when fame is measured by the number of mentions, or "hits" on the Internet, Mr. Joshua Lederberg is clearly a man of considerable fame. When I typed in his name at the prompt of an Internet search engine, I found that he "scores" approximately 1000 hits, quite a hefty number, especially considering that the world-famous singer John Lennon did not get all that much more! After browsing some of these references, I found that he was a Nobel Prize laureate in medicine. I also found that he attended Stuyvesant High School, the same school I attend, as a youngster, and that he was the President Emeritus of Rockefeller University. Clearly, here was a very distinguished individual, and I resolved to interview him. Upon having received his consent, I was very excited about the prospect and privilege of speaking to a man of such fame as Joshua Lederberg.

But, of course, fame is not the only thing that makes a man worth knowing. Some may say it is the earning of money: men like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, who gained billions through their wits and initiative. Some may say it is power: men like Napoleon, who rose through the ranks until he achieved supreme power, and became one of the most influential rulers ever. Still others may say it is compassion: those like Mother Teresa, who devoted a lifetime to helping selflessly those who need it. Some would say that it is diversity: men like Leonardo da Vinci, who had a remarkably wide variety of interests. Some others would say it is genius: men like Einstein, who single-handedly revolutionized physics, and substantially advanced the state of human knowledge. Still others may say it is a noble cause or a high purpose, or athletic prowess, or simply an interesting life from which a lesson may be learned that makes a man great. All these reasons are certainly significant, but I think that no one of them is sufficient in itself. In seeking the person whose life I truly deemed worth knowing, I looked for a man in whom a number of these worthy qualities converged, and after having interviewed Joshua Lederberg, I discovered that he is just such a man.

Joshua Lederberg was born in 1925 in Montclair, New Jersey, and moved to New York City when he was 6 months old. His parents came from Israel in 1924, and were of a very religious creed. His father was an orthodox rabbi, and his mother -- a housewife with little education, as was the custom with traditional Jewish orthodox families of the time. Lederberg speaks of both his parents with admiration, describing his mother as "a heroic soul" who "had to work very very hard to help keep the family together" during his father's prolonged illness, and referring to his father as "an idealistic person." Young Joshua himself was a "precocious youngster" who developed a keen interest in science as early as 6 or 7 years of age. This interest arose as "a sublimation of [his] father's and family traditions, religious impulses, but within a secular framework." Thus, at this early age, the interests and personality of this man began to emerge, until he developed into the distinguished individual that he is today.

The thing that struck me most during my interview with Joshua Lederberg was his uncanny intelligence. This quality manifested itself beginning at a rather early age, when he plagued his teachers at school with questions that they could not answer. This got to be so annoying to some of his teachers, that they made a sort of contract with him: "if I didn't ask too many disruptive questions, I could sit and do my own work in the back of the room," Lederberg recalls. This work consisted of quite complicated material: Joshua was reading medical textbooks by the age of 11-12, and received Bodansky's Introduction to Physiological Chemistry, a book that had a tremendous impact on his scientific development, as a Bar Mitzvah present in 1938. He was always one of the best students in every educational institution he attended, from elementary and junior high school, through Stuyvesant High School, and to Columbia University. During high school he took an IQ test, and received the highest score in the Northeastern region of the United States. Although Lederberg does give a lot of credit for his success to "a cadre of devoted and sympathetic teachers" who "went far beyond their duty in encouraging" him and to his Columbia mentor Francis J. Ryan, it is abundantly clear that his own intelligence was the key to his success.

But it was not all a matter of pure intelligence. Many other factors contributed to Lederberg's shining success. One of these factors, and one very closely related to intelligence, was insight and an amazing capacity for innovative thought. He himself admits that his "real strength is going into a field that has not been investigated before, and finding new approaches to it." This insight is largely what allowed him to make his first discovery, that of the conjugation of bacteria (the transfer of genetic material between bacteria), at the very early age of 21. He was still a student at Columbia University, spending a lot of time doing various experiments concerning genetics in Prof. Ryan's lab, when, in 1944, he read a certain paper by Avery, MacLeod and McCarty. At this point he says, "it became obvious to me...that molecular genetics was about to begin...and that bacteria would be the object of that kind of investigation." He proceeded to conduct experiments in the area, trying to ascertain whether or not bacteria could exchange genetic material. His early experiments were unsuccessful, but he was able to find a different approach to the problem, which worked admirably, and resulted in his discovery of conjugation in bacteria in 1946 in Edward Tatum's lab at Yale.

Lederberg's tremendous insight manifested itself a number of times later on in his life. He claims to have "a sense of how rapidly technology will advance," and that certainly appears to be true. The timetable for the space program is "roughly what [he] predicted it to be," and he "wrote a paper in the mid-70s where [he] anticipated that we would be having an electronic publication" on computers, which is happening today. He learned computer programming in the first place because he saw potential in it. This led to his creation of DENDRAL, the first medical diagnostic program, and the first successful expert system. He has some predictions for the future as well: he thinks that in the future, "if you want to solve very complex problems, you will have to end up letting machines work out a lot of the details for themselves, and in ways that we don't really understand." He says that we will have the machines themselves find solutions to problems, rather than having people program these solutions and just letting the computers perform them.

Another important component in Lederberg's success is his character. He has some very admirable character and personality traits that have undoubtedly aided him in his success. These include the fact that he is very motivated and self-confident. This self-confidence is clearly seen from the vigor with which he has plunged into research ever since his childhood, particularly into areas about which little is known. "I'm not easily inhibited by the fact that I don't know something about a subject," he says. "It does not stop me from dabbing in it."

The motivation, too, began to manifest itself very early in his life. Having started reading medical textbooks at the age of 12, he conducted research projects in cytochemistry in high school. At Columbia, he spent most of the time "not doing [his] studies and working on Neurospora in [Prof. Ryan's] lab." This motivation, combined with his remarkable insight, led to Lederberg's discovery of conjugation, but he did not just sit back and relax after that. "I wish I had a talent for dropping things as well as taking on new ones, it gets to be quite a bundle," he says. He proceeded to develop what is now molecular genetics, and did a lot of work in the field. Considered even more important was his discovery of transduction, the process by which viruses carry DNA from one bacteria to another, thereby changing their hosts' heredity. This perseverance, motivation, and devotion to his work led to Lederberg's reception of the Nobel Prize in 1958, in conjunction with his colleagues Beadle and Tatum. Even after having received this award of the highest merit, Lederberg continued his studies with unabated vigor.

These pursuits were not all strictly limited to his immediate field of study, genetics. One of the things that I find most fascinating about Joshua Lederberg is, in fact, the diversity and range of his interests. When asked about his interests and hobbies, he replied, with a smile, "Well, I have so much to keep me busy...Life's a hobby!" Indeed, through the years Lederberg has gotten involved in many things. He says, "being successful at a very young age gave me the confidence and the capability to try out other things." He has certainly taken advantage of these early successes, and has tried many things during his long and prolific life. In addition to his genetic research which, in itself, has a rather wide range, he has done computer programming; he has been involved in NASA projects of space exploration, such as one in which a vessel was sent to Mars to look for signs of life; he is on a number of committees dealing with scientific policy, including the Defense Science Board; and, most importantly, even with all this work, he finds time to spend with his family. Although reluctant to speak on personal subjects, Lederberg did say that he values his family life very much.

Lederberg's insight combined with his self-confidence and motivation as well as the diversity of his interests led him to take initiative in a number of fields. In the 1940s he became the father of molecular genetics by discovering conjugation. In the 1950s, he "saw a satellite in orbit, and said OK, the space age was about to begin. We better start thinking about what we can do with it as an experimental tool." In the 1960s, when the first punch-card computers were being developed, he already "started thinking what kind of really challenging intellectual problems could these machines solve." In the 1970s, he saw ARPAnet, a precursor of Internet, and understood what a tremendous potential this new tool has in easing world-wide communication. Joshua Lederberg is certainly a man ahead of his time, always thinking of cross-disciplinary applications of various technologies and of ways in which they can facilitate or improve people's lives.

Indeed, the thing that I found most admirable about Lederberg was his compassion and willingness to help people. Being a man of unusual talents, he feels it is his duty to "make life easier for the rest of the human population." He does think that experimentation is a lot of fun, but he also says that being able to help people is one of the reasons that he chose the medical profession. Through the years, Lederberg has certainly served true to this honorable goal. He has strove successfully to introduce "a doctrine of quarantine for space missions," so that no Earthly material would be carried to other planets, and no material from other planets would reach the Earth, and has also helped NASA with various other biological issues. He also strove, with some success, to make it easier for high school students to find out information about colleges, and thus enable them to make a more intelligent choice concerning what college they want to go to. He has been a staunch proponent of research funding, and has worked to engage more American youngsters in science. Of the greatest importance is the fact that Lederberg has been actively involved in arms control, nuclear as well as biological, since the late 1960s. He spoke out about biological arms control before most others even realized its paramount importance, and was the advisor to the arms control administration of the US government during the negotiations of a treaty concerning biological weapons in the early 1970s. He says that he still considers chemical and biological weapons to be a matter of the gravest concern in today's society, and is working to have some precautions taken in that direction. This extensive scientific consulting service to the United States government has earned Prof. Lederberg the National Medal of Science in 1989.

Another shining personal quality of Lederberg's is his integrity. As a scientific figure in the public spotlight, he feels a responsibility to maintain the highest level of integrity. He emphasizes that science brings to the public a certain "style of thinking, integrity of argument" where "you honor your adversaries, and you put all the evidence on the table," and he adheres closely to these principles. Indeed, he states that fraud in science "is a moral outrage, perhaps another sign of a system that has grown materialistic and unimaginably vicious."

I do not mean to make Joshua Lederberg sound like a perfect person. He is the first to admit that he has many shortcomings. Even his scientific pursuits have not all been successful: the mission to Mars that he helped arrange was not nearly as successful as it could have been. He also regrets not having made certain further discoveries in the field of molecular genetics, which he fathered, particularly certain discoveries about conjugation. He feels, though, that there is only so much that one person can do, and he is very glad to have had a chance to do what he did. He admits that he has certainly made mistakes and, when asked if he is content with his life he says that "content is too strong a word." Even today, at the age of 70, Lederberg is still very actively involved in a great number of things both as a scientist and as a member of many policy-making committees. He is currently heading a research effort involving mutagenesis, and is working on improving global Internet communication for science and giving third-world nations greater access to the Internet.

Clearly, Prof. Joshua Lederberg is a very colorful individual, as well as one of many outstanding qualities. His insight, his compassion, his motivation, his integrity, and a score of other wonderful qualities make him a shining example for today's young people to follow and learn from. Lederberg is a man of very strong character, committed to helping mankind. He is a dedicated man who thinks that "science has an intrinsic excitement to it" that is "much more important than the competition for wealth and glory...that we hear too much about." He does not say that science is for everybody, though. When asked about his advice for young people, he responded thoughtfully: "Try hard to find out what you're good at, and what your passions are, and where the two converge, and build your life around that." These passions and interests would be different for each of us, but we should all try to find them, and "make deliberate choices, [not] just wait for things to happen."

I believe that this man has done a great deal for our society, and that his contributions to science and to humanity are very valuable. He has striven to promote science and education throughout the world, and to ensure the safety of mankind both from outside dangers and from its own destructive hand. He has been very busy helping the world, but throughout all that, he never forgot his parents, whom he admires a great deal. He never forgot his mentor, Francis Ryan, who has had such a tremendous influence on him: he currently has students from Columbia University working in his lab as a commemoration to Ryan. But above all else, he values very much his relationship with his wife and children and the happiness that they give him. Throughout his long and fruitful life, Joshua Lederberg has never stopped working for the benefit of humanity, and has achieved the highest honors in all his pursuits -- from the Nobel Prize for his scientific work to the National Medal of Science for his government service. The life of this multi-faceted and visionary man is unquestionably worth knowing.

Copyright © 1996-2003 Ona Wu. All rights reserved.
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Copyright © 1996-2003 Ona Wu. All rights reserved. All rights reserved.