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Witness Post: Joshua Lederberg

“Please interrupt your really busy schedule discovering life on Mars and come speak with our alumni!”

I was worried. I could hear that declarative sentence ringing in my ear. How could the Yale Alumni Office in New Haven cajole Dr. Joshua Lederberg, the esteemed Nobel Prize Laureate, to leave his laboratory for a trip to California? Plus, this was not a pleasure trip to Disneyland; we were in the middle of an historic Capital Campaign, the largest in history at the time, and Dr. Lederberg was to be sent on a fundraising mission. We had asked the university to send us some “heavy-weights” to help us gather the Bulldogs who lived 3,000+ miles from their alma mater in Connecticut. Those of us in the West Coast Office had been looking for a keynote speaker for a dinner we were hosting in Northern California.

Campaign Headquarters at Yale had said that they would ask for a scientist to help us influence attendees among the doctor (PhD and MD) rich Eli’s in the Palo Alto alumni. These west coaster with a few notable exceptions were a prickly and parsimonious group. We waited for a reply.

Our first choice for speaker was James Tobin, the Nobel Prize winning economist.  Milton Friedman’s brother, Meyer Friedman, was a Yale alumnus in San Francisco, and he served on our alumni committees. When the topic of important “scientific speakers” came up at one committee meeting, Meyer had sarcastically said, “Jim Tobin would be pretty good …  for an economist …  not as good as my brother! It’s a shame Milt went to Rutgers and Columbia and not Yale!”

About a week later we got the call back from Yale Alumni Office: Dr. Lederberg had said, YES. We were ecstatic! This news was very exciting. We now had a Nobel laureate coming to our dinner and his name recognition was the perfect draw on the invitation. Our next worry was whether he were a good speaker or not. First things first.

Beyond his credentials, we wanted Lederberg to remind the alumni about the great things in New Haven. We wanted the speaker to be enthusiastic about Yale and to mention what a fabulous college it was. We would have to wait and see if his remarks proved convincing. The bottom line was we needed alumni to show up to the dinner, open their checkbooks, and write some big fat checks to Mother Yale.

Sarah Muyskens and I were in our first year of educational fundraising in the summer of 1976 and things were pretty glum on the West Coast. Our Executive Director was in the hospital recovering from a nervous breakdown; our Office Manager was talking of leaving her husband; our Leadership Gifts person spent more time buying gardenias for his jacket lapel, grooming his beard and resting his head on his desk than making phone calls; and the Office was being run by an alumni volunteer. Us two freshly plucked undergraduates had lots of sense but no money, so to speak. We conspired to shake things up with a great Bay Area reception.

Sarah and I busied ourselves getting Chairpersons for the dinner and the menu organized. We settled on a restaurant in Palo Alto, which seemed to fit the intimate, but comfortable, good-food-and-drink, qualities we sought. Barbara Ayers, who ran the Yale Office in Palo Alto, helped us a lot. Her husband, Doug, was a professor at Stanford and we could use all of the pull he could muster to gather a crowd.

William H. “Bill” Draper, III was the Alumni Chairman of the Campaign in the West and he ran the show. Bill put in more hours with us than we could fathom. With the loss of our Campaign office director, Bill was a fabulous alumni volunteer. As the Chairman of Sutter Hill Ventures, he felt he could get some of his colleagues (Len Baker, Yale ’63), even his partners from Princeton (Paul Wythes) and Michigan (Bill Younger) to come to the rescue. “Anything to help their good friend, Bill Draper,” said Wythes at the time. “What comes around, goes around,” Bill replied, hinting that he had more than once been their ally in fundraising circles. And with us trolling in Stanford territory, there was a whole passel of them around.


William H. Draper, III

When I called Dr. Lederberg to ask him what he was going to talk about, I remember him saying, “I was the chairman of the Genetics Department at Stanford, so I know my way around Palo Alto. I will admit, however that I am not particularly good at arm twisting!” I said that Bill Draper had agreed to “make the fundraising pitch” at the dinner, and Dr. Lederberg seemed relieved. He went on to explain what he was working on in the labs at Yale. I do not recall the conversation with precision, so grant me a little latitude. From what I recall the discussion went something like this: “… I have dedicated my life to studying the chromosomes of bacteria in the human gut, called Escherichia coli or E. coli for short. I have worked with the government on projects over the years. A few years ago NASA asked me to help come up with some simple tests. They wanted the latest unmanned capsule scheduled to land on Mars to get material samples, put them in a dish and determine if there is any life, as we know it, on the Red Planet.” In that last sentence Dr. Lederberg had said about a half a dozen things I knew nothing about – rocket to Mars, unmanned flight, test conditions, soil sampling, data collection, life on Mars and sending results back to earth.

I had more questions than I could possibly fathom, so I asked him if he could unpack that statement for me. “That is what I asked the scientists at NASA to do for me … You ask good questions.” Although flattered, I had no idea if I would understand his answer. Then he began again, more slowly.

“The biology of life on earth starts with cells and chromosomes and genes. As basic building blocks, they are simple. It gets complicated as cells are infected by viruses and contaminated by bacteria, combined and endlessly recombined; but to keep it simple, I like to start with the basics.”

From what I understood, NASA had adopted much of Dr. Lederberg’s work on “contamination” of every device sent into space. The biological impact of all space exploration from the time of the Soviet’s Sputnik to today is enormous. Acknowledging that extraterrestrial microbes could get aboard any device that plans re-entry into Earth’s orbit, both the National Academy of Science and NASA have adopted the same protocol. I imagined a 1970’s version of the movie Aliens and could picture the problems of contamination in space. The National Academy of Science groomed scientist who had also adopted the other side of the story: any device introduced into outer space can bring contaminates from Earth with it and may inadvertently obscure the research for extraterritorial life.

The best practices in space travel at the time were to carefully sterilize and quarantine everything coming from and going into space. Only by careful testing for microscopic contaminants, making sure not to introduce any viruses or bacteria, before and after the experiments, could the results approach reliability.

Viking 1 & 2 Landing Craft

Dr. Lederberg also explained that he was particularly proud for what he had been able to do as an advocate for best scientific practices. “You would think that NASA, of all scientific institutions, would be forward thinking about contamination, right?” Instead, he felt that NASA was stubborn and reluctant to change. Dr. Lederberg said that he had teamed up with the Public Broadcasting scientist, Carl Sagan, to expand the role of biological testing at NASA. They called their branch of biology – exobiology, which as I understand it, sets up some rules of engagement for experimentation around finding life elsewhere in the universe.

Viking 2

Questioning Dr. Lederberg, “So, do you think we will find life on Mars?” He laughed and said he was sure that we would find no Martian aliens, if that’s what I meant, but we would need further testing. “There might be life on Mars?” I asked. He said that it was not quite that easy to know if the conditions on Mars were suitable to biology as we know it on Earth.

He described the Viking 1 & 2 orbits and landings for experiments he and others had designed for the small mechanical arm on the landing probe. The arm was deployed to pick up some Martian soil, drop it in a petri-dish, analyze it, test its composition and see if it had any of the tell-tail signs of bacteria, virus or cells of any kind. If the tests came back positive, then that would prove that there some building blocks for life on the Red Planet. If they came back negative, then that particular site would be deemed, incompatible with “life as we know it.” It sounded to me as if only after hundreds of negative tests would NASA admits Mars was non-conducive to life. Such is the need for certainty in the science community.

At the end of his explanation, Dr. Lederberg apologized for his tiny contribution to the NASA program: “You should be talking to the scientists who designed the launch vehicle and calculated the trajectory. They are doing the heavy lifting. I am only putting in a few simple ideas to test some soil when they get there … it is really no big deal.” I said that we felt he would be the perfect speaker, because of his familiarity with Stanford and his love of Yale: what a great combination.

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The Lederberg Dinner

The dinner was a success in terms of attendance and interest, but it was not a big fundraiser. We had a lot more organizing to do to raise those $16MM from our region. As West Coast alumni, Yale was not part of the typical everyday conversation the way CAL or Stanford were. Only a few of the alumni knew the others in the room, because many of them had moved west to get away from “Boola, Boola” and “Your Daddy is a Yale Man” crowd. But it was a step in the right direction.

Dr. Lederberg was humble and precise. He did not ramble on and on, as some microphone happy professors do. Instead he was focused on telling the story of helping NASA see if there was life on Mars. Hearing it a second time around, it started to make some sense. Sarah, Bill Draper and I were all pleased with the turn-out and the guest speaker.

After dessert I introduced myself around the room and found two other men, who had sung in my same undergraduate singing group at Yale, the Society of Orpheus and Bacchus, or SOB’s for short. We starting singing our signature song, Javi, when another man walked up to us and, noticing we were missing a baritone, joined us in perfect harmony. That man was Preston G. Athey, who was to become a wonderful friend when we both moved to Maryland. Preston had just left the Navy and was finishing his MBA at Stanford. He had graduated from Yale in 1971. I would not have predicted it, however, we would sing side by side as basses in a series of a cappella groups in the Baltimore area.


Preston G. Athey

About a year and a half after the Yale dinner in Palo Alto, Dr. Lederberg was appointed the President of Rockefeller University, a role he would hold for 12 more years. When I heard the news I was pleased that we had claimed him as a Yale professor, when we had. Dr. Lederberg went on to win many, many awards, including the National Medal of Science from President George H.W. Bush (pictured below).

 Lederberg bush

Larry Ellison & Joshua Lederberg

A few years ago I was doing some research on Oracle Corporation, the software company run by Larry Ellison. Ellison always seemed to me to be an eccentric, jet setting genius, but with more brains and money than common sense. I knew he was a risk-taker (software company takeovers) and an avid sailor (America’s Cup), but then I read a story that he had piled heaps of money into researching ways to prolong life. One article said that Ellison was trying to live forever. What an absurd thing to do with your $ billions, I thought. Then I discovered that Ellison had teamed up with Joshua Lederberg for the experiments. With Lederberg added his name and reputation to the enterprise it was worth a second look.

Ellison  Ellison found

Apparently the Ellison Medical Foundation was formed after a conversation that took place between Larry Ellison and Joshua Lederberg in the early 1990’s. Dr. Lederberg had delivered a speech on artificial intelligence and biology at Stanford University. According to the Ellison Foundation website: “I got a note from Larry saying he was very interested and would like to hear more next time I’m out in California,” recalled Dr. Lederberg. “It took a year, but I contacted him. He invited me to his house, I oohed and aahed, and he said, ‘It’s obvious you like the house — so stay here.’ At one point he gave me a key to the house and said, ‘I never want to hear about you staying anywhere else.’ ”

After their first meeting, Dr. Lederberg visited Mr. Ellison every two or three months, staying four or five days each time. Over dinner in what Dr. Lederberg called “the most gorgeous setting in the world,” they talked of many things, including the way great wealth could be used. “Eventually I think he came to trust me and that I would look out for his interests,” Dr. Lederberg said. “I didn’t have any interest of my own, except that I was eager that he not die rich — that would be foolish.”

Mr. Ellison told Dr. Lederberg that he would have liked to do molecular biology as an alternative career, so Dr. Lederberg invited Ellison to work in his lab at Rockefeller in 1994. “He spent two weeks here being de facto my daughter’s lab assistant in work we were doing on mutagenesis and E. coli,” Dr. Lederberg said. “He snapped that up very quickly and within a day or two he was participating in discussions about what to do.”

In fact, Dr. Lederberg admitted, “[Larry] asked one question that profoundly altered what we did — it punctured holes in our control mechanism. It made it clear that we’d have to redo the experiment.” Later on, they talked about different fields for the foundation “and aging was one that stuck.” Dr. Lederberg said, “It was clear it was an area that was not quite integrated into what most molecular biologists were doing.”

So the non-profit Foundation was created, with Dr. Lederberg as head of a Scientific Advisory Board of six distinguished scientists that approves the Foundation’s grants.

Larry Ellison was the money and Joshua Lederberg was the science: a remarkable combination for sure.

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Joshua Lederberg

Lederberg Obituary (taken from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joshua_Lederberg)

Dr. Lederberg died in 2002 of pneumonia at the age of 82. Born in Montclair, New Jersey, he was the son of Esther Goldenbaum Schulman and Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Lederberg. The family moved to Washington Heights, Manhattan, when Joshua was an infant. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School at the age of 15. After graduation he was allowed lab space as part of the Institute Science Labs, the forerunner of Westinghouse Science Talent Search. He enrolled in Columbia University and majored in zoology. Lederberg worked as a hospital corpsman in 1943, intending to receive his MD and fulfill his military service obligations. He graduated from Columbia in 1944, having worked on malaria in blood and stool samples at St. Albans Naval Hospital.

Inspired by Oswald Avery’s discovery of DNA, Lederberg began to investigate his hypothesis that bacteria did not simply pass down exact copies of its genetic information, but changed and gained resistance to drug treatments. He took a leave of absence for two years to study under Edward Tatum at Yale, where they worked on the bacterium Escherichia coli. They discovered that the bacteria entered a sexual phase during which it could share genetic information through “bacterial conjugation.” Lederberg received his Ph.D. from Yale in 1947 by mapping the E. coli chromosome.

Joshua Lederberg married Esther Zimmer in 1946. The two met as fellow mentees of Edward Tatum. The couple moved to Madison, Wisconsin, after Yale where Joshua worked as assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin and Esther earned her doctorate. The couple was married for twenty years, and together they performed many important experiments on bacteria and viruses. Esther Lederberg won the Pasteur Medal for outstanding contributions to the fields of microbiology and genetics. The couple divorced in 1966.

Joshua Lederberg won the Nobel Prize in 1958, at the age of 33. He shared the prize with Edward Tatum and George Beadle for their collective work discovering that bacteria can mate and exchange genes. Lederberg moved to Stanford University where he was founder and chairman of the Department of Genetics.

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Lederberg in his lab

Throughout his career, Joshua Lederberg was active as a scientific adviser to the U.S. government. Starting in 1950, he was a member of various panels of the Presidential Science Advisory Committee. In 1979, he became a member of the U.S. Defense Science Board and the chairman of President Jimmy Carter’s President’s Cancer Panel. In 1989, he received National Medal of Science for his contributions to the scientific world. In 1994, he headed the Department of Defense’s Task Force on Persian Gulf War Health Effects, which investigated the Gulf War Syndrome.

Joshua Lederberg received the Benjamin Franklin Medal for Distinguished Achievement in the Sciences of the American Philosophical Society in 2002, and in 2006, Lederberg was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush (pictured below).

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In 2012 the 87 km diameter large impact crater in Xanthe Terra on the surface of Mars was named Lederberg Crater posthumously in his honor.

Joshua Lederberg married psychiatrist Marguerite Stein Kirsch in 1968. After his death he was survived by Marguerite Kirsch, their daughter, Anne Lederberg, and his stepson, David Kirsch.

NASA & The Viking Mission to Mars

Viking 1According to the NASA website: http://science.nasa.gov/missions/viking/

NASA’s Viking Mission to Mars was composed of two spacecraft, Viking 1 and Viking 2, each consisting of an orbiter and a lander. The primary mission objectives were to obtain high resolution images of the Martian surface, characterize the structure and composition of the atmosphere and surface, and search for evidence of life. Viking 1 was launched on August 20, 1975 and arrived at Mars on June 19, 1976.

The first month of orbit was devoted to imaging the surface to find appropriate landing sites for the Viking Landers. On July 20, 1976 the Viking 1 Lander separated from the Orbiter and touched down at Chryse Planitia. Viking 2 was launched September 9, 1975 and entered Mars orbit on August 7, 1976. The Viking 2 Lander touched down at Utopia Planitia.

The Orbiters imaged the entire surface of Mars at a resolution of 150 to 300 meters, and selected areas at 8 meters. The Viking 2 Orbiter was powered down on July 25, 1978 after 706 orbits, and the Viking 1 Orbiter on August 17, 1980, after over 1400 orbits. The Viking 2 Lander ended communications on April 11, 1980, and the Viking 1 Lander on November 13, 1982, after transmitting over 1400 images of the two sites.

The results from the Viking experiments give our most complete view of Mars to date. Volcanoes, lava plains, immense canyons, cratered areas, wind-formed features, and evidence of surface water are apparent in the Orbiter images. The planet appears to be divisible into two main regions, northern low plains and southern cratered highlands. Superimposed on these regions are the Tharsis and Elysium bulges, which are high-standing volcanic areas, and Valles Marineris, a system of giant canyons near the equator. The surface material at both landing sites can best be characterized as iron-rich clay. Measured temperatures at the landing sites ranged from 150 to 250 K, with a variation over a given day of 35 to 50 K. Seasonal dust storms, pressure changes, and transport of atmospheric gases between the polar caps were observed.

The key line from the NASA website concluded: The biology experiment produced no evidence of life at either landing site. It sounds as if there is no life on the Red Planet as we know it on Earth.


Images found on the internet, in the public domain.

Lederberg Obituary: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joshua_Lederberg

NASA website: http://science.nasa.gov/missions/viking/

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