Astrobiologist Awarded

Categories: Moon to Mars
Dr. Joshua Lederberg.
National Library of Medicine

Dr. Joshua Lederberg, a Nobel-winning microbiolgist whose advice helped create NASA’s early biology programs, will receive the Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor.

Dr. Lederberg became interested in exobiology — the study of life beyond Earth — in the 1950s, as interest in exploring space began to build in the United States and other countries. He was one of the first scientists to express concern that spacecraft from Earth might carry microbes that could contaminate the moon or other landing sites. He co-chaired the 1964 Summer Study, sponsored by NASA and the Space Studies Board of the National Academy of Science, which outlined the rationale for searching for life on Mars and started to make the search for life beyond Earth intellectually respectable.

He was consulted frequently by NASA during the development of the Viking mission, which carried experiments designed to determine whether life could exist on Mars.

"Joshua Lederberg was one of the guiding lights behind the Viking search for life on Mars and a very close friend and trusted adviser to Jerry Soffen, Viking project scientist" said Langley Research Center senior research scientist Dr. Joel S. Levine. "Lederberg visited Langley often and was influential in promoting the importance of searching for life outside Earth — even before that concept was fashionable."

Lederberg has remained active with NASA in the 21st century. In 2000, Baruch Blumberg, then the director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute and a Nobel Laureate himself, included Lederberg on his "Director’s Science Council," which consisted of 10 members, most of which were Nobel Laureates with expertise ranging from physics to molecular biology. Dr. Lederberg continues to be affiliated with institute activities and recently served as a reviewer for the joint NAI-American Philosophical Society “Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology.”

Lederberg was born in Montclair, N.J. on May 23, 1925. He was brought up in the Washington Heights District of Upper Manhattan, New York City, where he received his education in Public School 46, Junior High School 164 and Stuyvesant High School. From 1941 to 1944 he studied at Columbia College, where he obtained his B.A. with honors in Zoology (premedical course), and from 1944 to 1946 at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University Medical School. Here he carried out part-time research with Professor F.J. Ryan in the Department of Zoology. Subsequently, he went to the Department of Microbiology and Botany at Yale University, New Haven, Conn., as Research Fellow of the Jane Coffin Childs Fund for Medical Research and, during 1946-1947, as a graduate student with Professor E.L. Tatum. He was awarded a doctorate in 1948.

Dr. Joshua Lederberg at the Kennedy Space Center in an undated photo
National Library of Medicine

In 1947, he was appointed assistant professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin, where he was promoted to associate professor in 1950 and professor in 1954. He organized the Department of Medical Genetics in 1957, of which he was chairman during 1957-1958.

He organized the Stanford University Medical School’s Department of Genetics, which appointed him professor and executive head in 1959. Since 1962, he has been Director of the Kennedy Laboratories for Molecular Medicine at Stanford.

Lederberg was Visiting Professor of Bacteriology at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1950; and Fulbright Visiting Professor of Bacteriology at Melbourne University, Australia, in 1957. In the latter year, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Read more about Dr. Lederberg and NASA’s early efforts in exobiology and the Viking program in the NASA publication "On Mars: Exploration of the Red Planet, 1958-1978."

Related Web Sites

The National Library of Medicine
1958 Nobel Prize