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Lederberg Papers Expanded on Profiles in Science

The path-breaking scientific discoveries and illustrious public career of Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederberg (b.1925) have been placed into historical context in a wide-ranging new exhibit text presented by the National Library of Medicine on its Profiles in Science Web site. At the same time, the extensive Lederberg archive on Profiles has been further enriched with the release over 300 additional digitized documents selected from the Lederberg papers at the National Library of Medicine, and a digital finding aid to his papers has been made available to online users.

The latest release of Lederberg documents on Profiles brings the complete online collection to over 11,000 items, including letters, diaries, laboratory notebooks, published articles, and photographs. The newly-added documents span the length of Lederberg's life and the breadth of his activities, depicting his early years, laboratory research, academic career, and corporate consulting work. Among them the user will find Lederberg's application, at age fifteen, for laboratory privileges at the American Institute Science Laboratory, electronic mail from the early years of the Internet in the 1970s, and correspondence from such eminent scientists as André Lwoff, Herman Muller, Max Delbrück, and Selman Waksman.

The entirely rewritten and much-enlarged historical introduction to the site assesses Lederberg's place in the development of modern genetics and of U.S. science and defense policy. His pioneering research into the mechanisms of gene action in bacteria made him one of the founders of molecular biology in the 1940s and 1950s. A prodigy who received the Nobel Prize at age 33, he helped lay the groundwork for genetic engineering, modern biotechnology, and genetic approaches to medicine.

Joshua Lederberg was born in Montclair, New Jersey, on May 23, 1925, the son of an orthodox rabbi. He was educated at Stuyvesant High School and Columbia University in New York City. He received a PhD degree from Yale University in 1947 for his discovery that certain bacteria undergo a sexual stage, that they mate and exchange genes. As a result of his discovery, bacteria became one of the most important experimental organisms in genetics. As professor of genetics and, later, medical genetics at the University of Wisconsin from 1947 to 1959, Lederberg described a form of genetic recombination in bacteria mediated by a viral vector, a process he called transduction. In subsequent decades transduction became one of the foundations of recombinant DNA research.

Lederberg received a share of the 1958 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for his discoveries concerning genetic recombination and the organization of the genetic material of bacteria."

In 1959 he was named chairman of the newly-established Department of Genetics at Stanford University School of Medicine, a position that enabled him to relate genetics to the larger realm of human health and biology. While at Stanford he turned into an early proponent of space biology, and was instrumental in introducing computers and artificial intelligence into laboratory research and biomedical communicant as a collaborator on DENDRAL, one of the first expert systems in science.

With an abiding faith in the ability of government to improve society, secure peace, and protect the environment with the advice of scientific experts, Lederberg has served for over forty years on advisory commissions on science and health policy, space exploration, national security, and arms control. He has worked to bridge the gap between scientists and the public, most prominently by writing a weekly editorial column on science and society for the Washington Post between 1966 and 1971.

In 1978 Lederberg returned to New York as President of Rockefeller University. He became University Professor Emeritus and Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation Scholar in 1990, when he resumed his research into the chemistry and evolution of DNA and into computer modeling of scientific reasoning. He continues to advise government and lecture widely about developments in science as they relate to public policy and public health, in particular about the threat of bioterrorism and of both new and reemerging infectious diseases.

For the first time, Lederberg's extensive collection of papers at the National Library of Medicine, from which the documents featured on Profiles are drawn, can be conveniently navigated through an electronic finding aid. The detailed finding aid allows online users to survey the scope and content of the Lederberg papers, and to delve through the series arrangement down to the level of individual archival folders. Also for the first time, the complete Lederberg papers described in the finding aid are now open to researchers on-site in the History of Medicine Division reading room.