Joshua Lederberg; Pioneer of Molecular Biology

Dr. Joshua Lederberg, who helped open up the field of genetics, won a Nobel at age 33.
Dr. Joshua Lederberg, who helped open up the field of genetics, won a Nobel at age 33. (Courtesy Of Rockefeller University)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Joshua Lederberg, 82, a Nobel Prize winner for his work in bacterial genetics who is known as one of the founders of molecular biology, a discipline that in the past half-century has begun unlocking the secrets of how organisms live and reproduce, died Feb. 2 of pneumonia at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York.

Dr. Lederberg's pioneering work on

genetic recombination in bacteria helped propel the field of molecular genetics into the forefront of biological and medical research. His discoveries, beginning when he was 21 years old and through the award of the Nobel when he was 33, helped lay the groundwork for genetic engineering, modern biotechnology and genetic approaches to medicine.

For the next 45 years, Dr. Lederberg was acknowledged as one of the leaders in American science. He advised top government policymakers on science, lectured widely, ran a university and was a consultant to NASA on the Viking space missions to Mars. He warned of the danger of bioterrorism in 1999, urged worldwide reduction of nuclear arms stockpiles in 1991 and expressed concern over the possible contamination of life on other planets by microbes carried by spacecraft from Earth.

As recently as 2003, he served on a nonpartisan research group that concluded that government agencies across the nation were dramatically under-funding efforts to prepare police, fire and ambulance personnel for terrorist attacks.

Interdisciplinary in his methods and interests, Dr. Lederberg helped introduce computers and artificial intelligence into laboratory research and biomedical communication. He foresaw that advances in the treatment of cancer, organ transplants and geriatric medicine could present new problems, such as the availability and allocation of expensive health-care resources. Through his career, he kept doing basic research.

"The only real competition for domination of the planet are the viruses," he said in 1989. "We've beaten everything else, but the viruses are going to be the tough ones."

Dr. Lederberg also warned the public that the world, in becoming more interconnected, held dangers that previous generations had not seen. The 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in China, which quickly spread to Canada, was an example.

"The world is just one village. Our tolerance of disease in any place is at our own peril," he once said.

He received the National Medal of Science in 1989. In 2006, President Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Dr. Lederberg was born in Montclair, N.J., on May 23, 1925, and was raised in New York City. He was the son of an Orthodox rabbi and a homemaker descended from a long line of rabbinical scholars. His early interest in science was whetted by library reading. He was inspired by Paul de Kruif's "The Microbe Hunters" (1926), a book that "turned my entire generation toward a career in medical research," he said in papers donated to the National Library of Medicine.

He graduated at the age of 15 from New York's Stuyvesant High School, a public school that specialized in science and technology.

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