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Joshua Lederberg (1925-2008)

February 14th, 2008 by John Wilbanks

Joshua Lederberg, a legendary scientist and one of the members of our Advisory Board here at Science Commons, passed away on February 2. He was 82. (See Rockefeller University’s write-up.)

Dr. Lederberg was a legend for lots of reasons. He won his Nobel at the tender age of 33 – two years younger than I am now – for his work on the organization of genetic material in bacteria.

Though it’s easy to forget these days, back in the late 1950s it was not yet understood that bacteria possess recombinant mechanisms like humans do. His work laid the foundation for a generation of discovery. He also was deeply involved in early artificial intelligence for science (the Dendral project) and the space exploration program, in addition to serving as president of Rockefeller University.

Dr. Lederberg was in many ways a paradigmatic great scientist. He was restless and curious about his work, and his interdisciplinary bent was a bracing reflection of the world of biology before the revolutions wrought in the 1970s and later in biotechnology, which led us to the contemporary world of hyperspecialization. His papers are online at the National Library of Medicine, in an early take on open access.

We didn’t get a lot of his time here at Science Commons. He was a very busy man, even in his last years. But the time that he did graciously share with us formed a huge part of our early thinking, helping us to focus on the things that let scientists be scientists – the infrastructure that invisibly lifts a researcher out of the muck of finding content and into the air, where a researcher can make discoveries, and the systems that facilitate the kind of cross-disciplinary friendships he built throughout his career.

Thank you, Dr. Lederberg, and farewell.

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