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Joshua Lederberg: biodmedical science and the public interest written in red lettering.
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Public Service: 1978-present

chronology of his life

Black and white photograph, three quarters length, full face view of Joshua Lederberg leaning against a book shelf to his left. He is holding a book in his left hand and his right hand is in his pocket.

Lederberg as president of Rockefeller University, 1990.

Joshua Lederberg has not only been a creative bench scientist, but a public scientist and intellectual. At a time when the development of nuclear weapons and of genetic engineering tested as never before the ethical and political commitments of scientists, Lederberg has devoted himself to shaping public policy for over four decades. He has been an adviser to presidents, cabinet members, non-profit organizations, and international bodies on science and medical research policy, and also on mental health, emerging infectious diseases, space exploration, national security, and arms control. In his public career he personified the postwar American liberal, with a firm belief in the ability of modern government to improve society, and in the responsibility of scientists to help guide government action. In his varied interests and accomplishments, Lederberg has bridged the divisions between science, society, and politics.



A cream colored piece of newspaper with black print of a Dutch newspaper article titled Influenza fra universet (Influenza from the Universe). At the top of the article is a cartoon featuring three patients in hospital beds with signs above their heads stating 'Moon Measles' Moon Measles,' 'Mars Influenza,' and 'Venus Warts.' Each patient is drawn to exhibit those symptoms. Just below the cartoon is the title printed using red ink.

"Influenza from the Universe," article and cartoon from an unidentified Danish newspaper, June 24, 1960.

Lederberg's repeated public warnings about the danger of back contamination of the earth by returning space probes received international attention at the outset of instrumented space exploration in the late 1950s. Fear of interstellar contamination prompted him to seek a place for biology in the emerging NASA space program. The signs above the three patients read "Moon Measles," "Mars Influenza," and "Venus Warts."



A typed letter from President John F. Kennedy to Joshua Lederberg dated February 28, 1961. At the top of the letter in blue ink are the words The White House, Washington. The letter is signed by President John F. Kennedy.
Letter of John F. Kennedy to Lederberg, Feb. 28, 1961.
Original in the possession of Joshua Lederberg.

In this letter President John F. Kennedy thanks Lederberg for his service as an adviser on health policy on Kennedy's White House transition team.



Black and white photograph of President of John F. Kennedy meeting with members of the President's Panel on Mental Retardation. Joshua Lederberg is on the far right of the photograph. President of John F. Kennedy is fourth from the right.

Photograph of meeting of Lederberg and other members of the President's Panel on Mental Retardation
with President John F. Kennedy, October 18, 1961.

Lederberg, who is on the far right, investigated the hereditary and molecular origins of mental retardation in children during the 1960s as part of his growing interest in human and population genetics. This research was supported by the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., Foundation, and led to close ties between Lederberg and members of the Kennedy family, especially Eunice Shriver (seventh from left) and her husband, Sargent Shriver.



A montage of seven articles written by Joshua Lederberg
Article titled The Infamous Black Death May Return to Haunt Us by Joshua Lederberg. Article titled Science Has Long Known Ways to Make Subhumans by Joshua Lederberg. Article titled Discoveries in Cell Fusion Augur Advances in Biology by Joshua Lederberg. Article titled Human Mutation Can Scramble the Coded Genetic Message of DNAby Joshua Lederberg. Article titled Environmental Chemicals' Hazards Still Little Known by Joshua Lederberg. Article titled We can Make a Safer World by Dropping Work on Toxins by Joshua Lederberg. Article titled Intellectuals Revive Dream of Israeli-Arabic Planning by Joshua Lederberg.

Between 1966 and 1971, Lederberg wrote over 200 editorial columns on issues of science, society, and public policy for the Washington Post, bringing these pressing issues to the attention of a broad readership and of Capitol Hill.

To view the full article (PDF format), click on each one.

Examples of Lederberg's "Science and Man" columns from the Washington Post, 1966-71.



A pastel colored illustration of a woman with blonde hair leaning backwards holding up her right arm in the air. She is holding a gene towards a silver box floating on a cloud that has the words DNA on the front. The sun, the moon, and a rainbow appear in the background.
Illustration from Lederberg, "DNA Splicing: Will Fear Rob Us of Its Benefits?" Prism, vol. 3, no. 10 (November 1975), p. 33.
Click here to view the full article (PDF format).

By the mid-1970s, geneticists had learned to recombine sequenses of DNA and had synthesized a complete gene from its component chemicals. With these breakthroughs arose fear that scientists might create dangerous new forms of life. In 1974, a committee of 139 scientists from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and 18 foreign nations called for a halt in certain kinds of genetic engineering research until their environmental risks and ethical implications could be more fully assessed and regulations for laboratory safety written. This editorial expresses Lederberg's concern that overly stringent government regulation would stifle genetic research.



A white building pass with a color head and shoulders photograph of Joshua Lederberg in the center. At the top of the pass are the words Department of Defense in blue lettering with a Department of Defense logo on the right side. At the bottom of the pass is a larger version of the Department of Defense logo and a black stamp with the words NCR Nov 1993.
Building Pass for Joshua Lederberg to Department of Defense, November 1993. In the possession of Joshua Lederberg.

For over twenty years Lederberg has been a consultant to the Secretary of Defense and various Defense Department agencies on medical, scientific, and technological developments as they relate to military manpower, arms control, and national security.



A typed letter from Joshua Lederberg to Salvador E. Luria dated July 20, 1970. At the top of the letter is the logo and words for Stanford University Medical Center. The letter outlines Lederberg's concerns over the proliferation of biological and chemical weapons.
Letter from Lederberg to Salvador E. Luria, July 20, 1970.

In this letter to his long-time friend and fellow Nobelist Salvador Luria, Lederberg outlines his concerns over the proliferation of biological and chemical weapons (abbreviated "BW" and "CW", respectively, in the letter), and demonstrates his purposeful but also guarded approach to matters of public policy.



A color photograph of President Bill Clinton is seated at an oval table chairing a White House conference on bioterrorism, January 1999. There are fourteen people visible seated at the table listening to President Clinton. There are two people on the left and one person on the right seated behind the people seated at the table. Joshua Lederberg is fifth from the left at the table. The photograph is signed To Dr. Joshua Lederberg With Appreciation, Bill Clinton on the bottom.
President Clinton chairing White House conference on bioterrorism, January 1999. Lederberg is fifth from the left at the table.

His interest in the genetics of emerging infectious diseases has led Lederberg to warn policymakers and military leaders in the U.S. and abroad against developing biological weapons. For over three decades he has called on the American government to negotiate limits on such weapons, and to prepare for a possible bioterrorist attack.



View the extensive Lederberg papers on Profiles in Science.