Esther Lederberg: “one of the great pioneers in bacterial genetics”

When perusing lists of women deserving of Nobel prizes, we see Esther Lederberg’s name appear again and again. Although her discoveries have significantly advanced molecular biology, the understanding of genetic organization, and have been a “crucial tool for many Nobel Prize winners”, according to Richard Novick at the New York University, her work remains largely unknown outside of the scientific world.

She is best known for the work she did with her first husband, Joshua Lederberg, who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1958 for their research and discoveries on how bacteria mate. However, as a news release by Stanford states, “her work was extremely noteworthy in its own right, and she was a trailblazer for women scientists at Stanford and at large.”

Esther Lederberg received her master’s degree from Stanford in 1946 and went on to pursue her PhD at the University of Wisconsin. With her first husband Joshua Lederberg, she developed the fascinatingly simple replica plating technique which is still used in genetics labs today, and which allowed them to prove the “spontaneous development of mutation in bacteria”.

In 1951, while conducting a different experiment, Lederberg discovered a virus which she named lambda phage in the K-12 strain of E. coli. After having treated the strain with ultraviolet light, she noticed it was “nibbled” around the edges. She realized that this virus was doing no immediate harm to the strain of E. coli, but could be “transmitted through bacterial mating and ordinary genetic material” and could remain dormant, or become active and destroy the host, under certain conditions. This discovery helped researchers to understand genetic inheritance in bacteria and in more complex viruses.

Stanley Falkow, aPhD, the Robert W. and Vivian K. Cahill Professor in Cancer Research at Stanford University recognizes her as “one of the great pioneers in bacterial genetics”. However, as is often the case when speaking of great women scientists, she encountered many difficulties due to her gender. Besides being snubbed for a Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1958 for the work she did with her husband, she also had to fight to become a research associate professor at Stanford. In order for her to obtain the position, she had to persuade the medical school dean by offering to start in an untenured position (although she was far over-qualified) demonstrating the difficulty women had in academia in those days.

Of course, Lederberg is not the only woman to have withstood this discrimination in the workplace. It also didn’t stop her. She was a “seemingly limitless repository of information about the bacterial and phage strains that she worked with” and was also witty and charming, able to hold an audience captive with her stories.

She passed away in 2006 at the age of 83, but her legacy will remain. She is remembered fondly by her colleagues and the scientific community: 

“Experimentally and methodologically she was a genius in the lab”. 

For Women in Science

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