Joshua Lederberg

Born: May 23, 1925 | Montclair, NJ, US
Died: February 2, 2008 | New York City, NY, US

Joshua Lederberg begins his three-part interview by discussing his early years in New York and the early influence of science on his education. Lederberg received his bachelor's degree in biology from Columbia University, worked with Francis Ryan on Neurospora and E. coli, enlisted with the United States Navy, and received his Ph.D. in microbiology from Yale University. Lederberg discusses his career in academia, including his time at the University of Wisconsin, as well as his Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1958. 

Access This Interview

The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.


Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0107
No. of pages: 105
Minutes: 470

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
25 June, 7 July and 9 December 1992
Rockefeller University, New York, New York

Abstract of Interview

Joshua Lederberg begins the three-part interview with a description of his parents, family background, and early years in New York. Lederberg knew from the second grade that he wanted to be a scientist, and he experimented at home with his own chemistry lab. Lederberg cites Albert Einstein as being a positive role model in his formative years. After completing grade school in 1936, he attended the Palestine Conference with his father in Washington, DC. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School at age fifteen. Due to age restrictions, Lederberg had to wait until he was sixteen before entering Columbia University. He spent the semester between high school and college at the American Institute of Science Laboratory. Then, he received his B.A. in biology from Columbia in 1944. While in college, Lederberg did original research with colchicine and worked with Francis Ryan on Neurospora and E. coli. At age seventeen, he enlisted with the U. S. Navy and was placed in the V-12 program, serving as a naval hospital corpsman. While working towards his PhD , Lederberg continued his research on bacteria and E. coli. After receiving his PhD in microbiology from Yale University in 1947, he joined the University of Wisconsin as assistant professor of genetics, and he expanded the University's bacteriology research. There, Lederberg first worked on salmonella strains with his graduate students. While with the University of Wisconsin, Lederberg won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1958. Lederberg concludes the interview with a discussion of the University environment during the McCarthy era, reflections on his career decisions, and thoughts on chemical information science. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1944 Columbia University BA Biology
1947 Yale University PhD Microbiology

Professional Experience

Columbia University

1945 to 1946
Research Assistant, zoology

Yale University

1946 to 1947
Research Fellow, Jane Coffin Childs Fund for Medical Research

University of Wisconsin, Madison

1947 to 1950
Assistant Professor of Genetics
1950 to 1954
Associate Professor of Genetics
1954 to 1959
Professor of Genetics
1957 to 1959
Chair, Department of Medical Genetics

University of California, Berkeley

Visiting Professor of Bacteriology

University of Melbourne


Stanford University School of Medicine

1959 to 1978
Professor of Genetics, Biology, and Computer Science
1959 to 1978
Chairman, Department of Genetics

The Rockefeller University

1978 to 1990
1990 to 1993
University Professor


Year(s) Award

National Academy of Sciences


Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine


Sc. D. (honorary), Yale University


Alexander Hamilton Award, Columbia University


Wilbur Cross Medal, Yale University


Proctor Medal, Sigma Xi


Sc. D. (honorary), University of Wisconsin


Sc. D. (honorary), Columbia University


M.D. (honorary), University of Turin


Sc. D. (honorary), Yeshiva University


Litt. D (honorary) Jewish Theological Seminary


Foreign Member, Royal Academy of Sciences


LL. D. (honorary), University of Pennsylvania


Honorary Life Member, New York Academy of Sciences


Sc. D. (honorary), Rutgers University


Honorary Fellow, New York Academy of Medicine


Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science


Fellow, American Philosophical Society


Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences


Sc. D. (honorary), New York University


M.D. (honorary), Tufts University


Distinguished Service Medal, Columbia University


National Medal of Science


D.Phil. (honorary), Tel-Aviv University


Founding Member, Academie Universelle des Cultures


Allen Newell Award, Association for Computing Machinery


John Stearns Award for Lifetime Achievement, New York Academy of Medicine


Maxwell Finland Award, National Foundation of Infectious Diseases


Mayor's Award in Science and Technology, New York City


Dr. Mil. Med. (honorary), USUHS

Table of Contents

Family Background and Early Education

Parents' immigration from Israel to the United States. Early interest in science. Self-discipline in education. Attending Stuyvesant High School. Early experimentation. Reading and focusing on cytochemistry.

Post-High School Years

Graduating high school at age fifteen. Selecting Columbia University. Albert Einstein as a role model. Visit to Israel. Studying at the American Institute of Science Laboratory. Home experimentation.

College Years

Meeting Barbara McClintock. Advanced level courses. Joining the V-12 military program. Working with Francis Ryan on Neurospora. E. coli research.

Graduate Career

Working with Ed Tatum on Neurospora. Going to Yale University. Bacteria research. Marriage to Esther Zimmer. Pondering medical school. Summer at Woods Hole. Importance of scientific history in research. DNA research. Cold Spring Harbor conference.

University of Wisconsin

Interest in genetics. Decision to work at University instead of returning to medical school. Developing Genetics Department in the Agricultural School. Support from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). Work on salmonella. Norton Zinder, his first graduate student.

Scientific Career

Setting up laboratory. Media attention. Washington Post column. Commercial consulting with Bristol Laboratories. Summer at Berkeley. McCarthyism.

Final Thoughts

Funding. Continuing research. Citation indexing. Fulbright scholarship in Australia.


About the Interviewer

James J. Bohning

James J. Bohning was professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he had been a faculty member from 1959 to 1990. He served there as chemistry department chair from 1970 to 1986 and environmental science department chair from 1987 to 1990. Bohning was chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1986; he received the division’s Outstanding Paper Award in 1989 and presented more than forty papers at national meetings of the society. Bohning was on the advisory committee of the society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program from its inception in 1992 through 2001 and is currently a consultant to the committee. He developed the oral history program of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and he was CHF’s director of oral history from 1990 to 1995. From 1995 to 1998, Bohning was a science writer for the News Service group of the American Chemical Society. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.  Bohning passed away in September 2011.