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Joshua Lederberg: biodmedical science and the public interest written in red lettering.
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Youth in New York: 1925-46

chronology of his life

Joshua Lederberg (b. 1925) is exceptional even among the select and illustrious group of Nobel prize recipients. More than most of his peers, he has combined pioneering research--in genetics, molecular biology, and computer science--with concern for public issues, especially health care policy, environmental protection, science education, and arms control. This Exhibit highlights how one outstanding scientist has bridged the divide between science, society, and politics during the second half of the twentieth century.

Unless noted otherwise, items in this exhibit are drawn from the Joshua Lederberg papers,donated by Dr. Lederberg to the National Library of Medicine in 1998. The Library is publishing a comprehensive selection of the Lederberg papers on its Profiles in Science.



Head and shoulders, left pose view of Joshua Lederberg using a microtomeotome, a device used for cutting thin slices of tissue for microscopical examination.
Joshua Lederberg using a microtome at the American Institute, 1941.

While a high school student in Manhattan, Lederberg participated in the American Institute, a research facility for gifted youths in the sciences that had grown out of the 1939 New York World Fair. The Institute provided Lederberg with laboratory space and equipment such as a microtome, a device used for cutting thin slices of tissue for microscopical examination.



Black and white photograph of the outside of the Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem, 1910. Many people are walking on the cobblestone street. Stores and vendors line both sides of the street.
Photograph of the outside of the Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem, 1910. Published in Eli Schiller, ed., The Heritage of the Holy Land: Illustrated Periodical of the Landscapes of the Holy Land, vol. 1 (December 1982), p. 4.
Black and white image of a person in front of the store to the right of the Jaffa gate, with the name Lederberg on the store sign.

The photography store to the right of the Jaffa gate, with the name Lederberg on the store sign (see vignette to the right), belonged to Chaim L. Lederberg, Joshua Lederberg's grandfather. Lederberg's parents emigrated from the British protectorate of Palestine to the United States in 1924.



Handwritten essay written in blue ink titled What I would like to Be by Joshua Lederberg.
Joshua Lederberg,
"What I would like to Be"
essay, 1932.
Original in the possession of
Joshua Lederberg.

Solomon, the middle name Lederberg gave himself as author of this essay, is not his true middle name, but a youthful affectation. Note the grade he received for the essay, a B+.



Color photograph of a brass tube, monocular light microscope.
Brass tube, monocular light microscope, ca. 1930. In the possession of Joshua Lederberg.

Lederberg used this microscope while a student at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan between 1938 and 1941.



Joshua Lederberg sitting outdoors on grass in a U.S. Naval Reserve Uniform.
Joshua Lederberg in a U.S. Naval Reserve Uniform, October 1943.

While an undergraduate at Columbia University during World War II, Lederberg enrolled in the Naval Reserve's V-12 program, an expedited curriculum for training naval physicians. Lederberg never completed his M.D., instead changing after the war to a Ph.D. and a career in biomedical research.



A Victory Mail (V-mail) letter from from Joshua Lederberg to John Henry Edman August 3, 1945. The letter describes Lederberg's life at medical school.
Lederberg to John Henry Edman August 3, 1945.

Unlike Edman, a fellow graduate of Stuyvesant High School and close friend, Lederberg served stateside during World War II, at St. Albans Naval Hospital on Long Island.


The second paragraph of the letter reads in part:
"We're well into the second year of Med School now, and it's no cinch to sit, awake, in those hot, unaired, dark rooms while some old geezer talks on and on and on about measles or Tuberculosis. Medicine is spoon fed; [. . .] it isn't much of a science, not so much that it doesn't use scientific techniques as that it has a very narrow approach. Cure the patient, and as a result, probably less patients are cured in the long run. I don't like it, and probably will not practice very long after I get out. Instead, I've finally gotten myself deeply involved in some fundamental research, and ambitions, and people are melting out of my world, which is the way I have always pretended that I wanted it to be. I haven't made any new friends, since you guys, and I know damn well that even that can never be the same again . . . That's my price for having sat out the war. [. . .] the laboratory is more than just a dull place where you wash test tubes. There, and not on the dance floor, drill field, or battleground, I'm at my best [. . .]"

View the extensive Lederberg papers on Profiles in Science.