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Joshua Lederberg: biodmedical science and the public interest written in red lettering.
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Computers in Biomedical Research: 1959-78

chronology of his life

Black and white photograph of a side view of Joshua Lederberg seated at a computer terminal in Stanford University Medical School's computer lab.

Joshua Lederberg in Computer Lab
of the Stanford University Medical School, December 1974.

During the 1960s and '70s, Joshua Lederberg introduced computer science and artificial intelligence to the biomedical laboratory. He was helped by computer scientist Edward A. Feigenbaum and a team of interdisciplinary researchers in chemistry and medicine at Stanford University. In 1965 this group inaugurated DENDRAL (for Dendritic Algorithm), a computer program that formalized and emulated the inductive reasoning of chemists in identifying unknown organic compounds. In 1973, Lederberg and his fellow investigators created SUMEX-AIM (Stanford University Medical Computer--Artificial Intelligence in Medicine), a nationwide time-share computer system hosting biomedical research projects at two dozen universities via the ARPANET. Lederberg helped to establish the central role that computers play in medical research, clinical practice, and biomedical communication today.

A color photograph of a four light indicator panel of an ACME Terminal Indicator Panel. There is one light that reads, ACME IS ON. It is driven by the transmission control signals to indicate that the system is operational. Another light reads, YOU ARE ON. It is pulsed at a rate proportional to the amount of computing time the user is getting. The flicker rate thus indicates the performance of the system with respect to that user. Another light reads, WAITING FOR YOU. It is on whenever the system is expecting
input from the user. The final light reads, SPECIAL RUN ON. It is on whenever a high demand, real-time data transmission process is active. It indicates that severely degraded terminal performance can be expected.
ACME Terminal Indicator Panel, ca. 1969. In the possession of Joshua Lederberg.

ACME, or Advanced Computer for Medical Research, was the predecessor of SUMEX and one of the first time-share, interactive computer systems dedicated to biomedical research. Using data supplied directly by laboratory instruments, ACME assisted in such tasks as predicting drug interactions, managing medication schedules for heart patients, and tracing the spread of infectious diseases. Established at Stanford University Medical School in 1966, it operated until 1973, when it was superseded by SUMEX-AIM.

Black and white image of page six of The Seeds of Artificial Intelligence:  SUMEX-AIM. On the left side is the word Introduction and subtitle Artificial Intelligence - What's in a name? On the right side at the top is text. Below the text is in illlustration of a face with the brain exposed on the right side and a computer on the left side of the face. A stetoscope is in the right ear and computer on the left.
U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare,The Seeds of Artificial Intelligence: SUMEX-AIM(Washington: Government Printing Office, 1980), p. 6.

This image captures the objective of DENDRAL, ACME, and SUMEX-AIM to supplement the analytical and diagnostic skills of scientists and physicians with the processing speed and data-storage capacity of modern computers.

A blue map of the United States of America with dots at locations of computer systems, their names and lines connecting them together. The title below the map says ARPANET 1973.
Map of the ARPANET in 1973. University of California at Santa Barbara, Computer Systems Laboratory, brochure published fall 1973.

The Department of Defense opened the ARPANET, the first nationwide electronic data communications network, for non-military research projects in 1973. SUMEX-AIM was the first such project on ARPANET.

A printout of e-mail messages on blue and white paper between Joshua Lederberg, Saul Amarel, Carole Miller, and Harriet Zuckerman, SUMEX-AIM participants, January 18-21, 1977.
Printout of e-mail messages between Joshua Lederberg, Saul Amarel, Carole Miller, and Harriet Zuckerman, SUMEX-AIM participants, January 18-21, 1977.

E-mail communication between scientists via ARPANET had become a key feature of SUMEX by the mid-1970s.

Black and white photograph of page 10 of the Stanford Medical Alumni Association, Stanford M.D., vol. 13, no. 4 (Fall 1974). A photograph of Dr. Elliott Levinthal standing outdoors with a co-worker, who is kneeling, with a Viking lander test model dominates the majority of the left side of the page. In the upper right corner is a picture of a model of the Viking lander.
Model of the Viking Mars Lander.
Stanford Medical Alumni Association, Stanford M.D.,
vol. 13, no. 4 (Fall 1974), p. 10.

Combining his research into computers and into the evolution of microorganisms, Lederberg in the late 1950s became involved in the emerging American space program and in the search for life beyond earth's atmosphere, or "exobiology," in his term. Together with electrical engineer and long-time collaborator Elliott Levinthal (on the right in the adjacent photograph), Lederberg developed an automated miniature laboratory for the Viking I Mars mission that would probe for traces of microbial life in the soil of the planet. Lederberg hoped that finding such traces would yield new clues about the origin of all life. However, when finally launched in 1976, Viking I produced only inconclusive evidence of life on Mars.

View the extensive Lederberg papers on Profiles in Science.