At an informal meeting of scientists, one scientist was heard to say that,
given the successes in molecular biology and genetics, he might get out of
the field since everything was now known. Esther replied, "There is a white
flower with a single central purple petal. Can you explain how that purple
petal got there?" The moral is, scientists are more successful when they
couple observation with thought.
Click for additional information
Esther traveled across the U.S. by train, arriving in Palo Alto with a plan: She
would stay at the local YWCA. This was a good plan, but after Esther's luggage was
reported lost, Esther also found out that there was no local YWCA in Palo Alto.
Instead, Esther arranged to stay at the Barker Hotel (a single-residency
hotel for those down on their luck). The next day, Esther arranged to see Dr. Edward
Tatum. Dr. Tatum asked her what she was interested in studying. Esther replied:
"Genetics!" Dr. Tatum replied that genetics wasn't offered until the Winter Quarter,
and repeated his question: what would she like to study?" Esther replied, "Genetics!"
Dr. Tatum asked where Esther was staying, and she replied, "At the Barkeley Hotel."
After he recovered from his shock, Dr. Tatum immediately arranged for Esther to stay
at an available place in a dormitory at Stanford (Manzanita Hall, then vacant, as the
Stanford quarter started later than Esther expected), and told Esther to see him the
Esther arrived the next day, only to find a milk-bottle with Drosophila, all of which had eyes the same color, except for one fly. Esther concluded that she was to determine why the one Drosophila had different-coloured eyes. Esther worked out, by herself, all the material typically taught in a genetics course. She was so successful, Dr. Tatum asked her to be the Teaching Assistant (TA) for the genetics course the next quarter.
Esther said that she was so poor, that as TA in another course, she and another TA ate the frog's legs after student dissections were over. When the quarter started, Esther arranged to live in a private home at 634 Alvarado Row, in exchange for washing the clothes of the woman who owned the home. Esther was not a student with wealthy parents to provide financial support.
Post Card Home: Arrived Safely
At a young age (19 or 20), Esther was interested in working in genetics. Esther spoke with Bernard Ogilvie Dodge (Plant Pathologist at the New York Botanical Garden). Dr. Dodge asked Esther about her knowledge of Neurospora crassa, posing a few questions to her. In each case, Esther admitted that she didn't know the answer, but explained how she would go about "seeking a solution to these problems". Dr. Dodge immediately asked Esther to engage in research with him. Esther worked under three scholarships with Dr. Dodge between 1941 and 1942, conducting research in heterokaryosis in Neurospora tetrasperma. Esther explained how Dr. Dodge accidentally discovered how heat shock was required to induce germination of the spores. Neurospora crassa was of industrial importance in that it created problems in bakeries.
I asked Esther about her views concerning the morality of working in
biological warfare. Certain that Esther, being ethical, would oppose
biological warfare, I wanted to hear how she would explain her opposition.
Esther stated that one could not automatically reject funding from biological
warfare organizations because so much useful research could thereby be
accomplished; in fact she admitted that she and Josh had accepted funding from Camp
Detrick although the work she was doing in itself was not directly related
to biological warfare. Camp Detrick (which was in Maryland) had stipulated that
the only requirement was that the participating scientist visit Camp Detrick once
When Esther's time came to visit Camp Detrick, the people at Camp Detrick graciously showed her and other scientists the different facilities and much of the scientific work that was being done. At one point Esther and the other scientists were asked to get on a bus to be driven to the restricted area of Camp Detrick. When Esther realized that they were about to tour the area of Camp Detrick where the development of biological weapons took place, she asked the driver to stop the bus and let her off. The other scientists on the bus overheard, and all got off the bus, following Esther's lead.
Click for more information.
On another occasion, Esther mentioned her work in the Plasmid Reference Center, distributing "kits" of plasmids to interested researchers. Esther received a request for a plasmid kit from a researcher from a Middle Eastern country, and it seemed clear to her that the intended area of research was biological warfare. Esther declined to provide the desired plasmids. Ironically, Esther was precluded from providing assistance in any case, as the explicitly-stated policy of this Middle Eastern country was to refuse assistance from any research or related materials in which Jewish researchers participated.
Esther grew up during the Great Depression, her parents being quite poor
financially. Esther's parents did the best they could. Esther told me that her
lunch often was a piece of bread, upon which her mother squeezed juice from a
tomato. Once, Esther's parents told Esther that they would have steak for
dinner (a very rare treat). Esther didn't quite know what "steak" was, as she
happily announced to all her childhood friends that they would be eating
snake for dinner that night.
In spite of the entrenched gender discrimination found in the 1940s, Esther succeeded in accomplishing so much. How did Esther do this? A clue is provided by what Esther told me. Esther told me that her female friends took jobs once reserved for men, but newly opened up to women due to the shortages of "manpower" during World War II. Esther told me that women friends took jobs in the Defense Department such as in the Signal Corp. These jobs paid well, but Esther thought that the jobs would have no future: as soon as the war was over, Esther expected that these women would lose their new jobs (which indeed happened). Instead of opting for a highly-paid job that would ultimately go nowhere, Esther chose to take research-oriented work open to women (no matter how limited), such as in Public Health. During the Depression, this was the financial difficulty her friends tried to avoid.
Esther's choice to pursue knowledge over financial security led her to take courses and to work with such people as Alexander Hollaender, Milislav Demerec, George Beadle, Ed. Tatum, and C. B. van Neil. It was not an accident that Esther was influenced by such researchers; Esther deliberately sought this path.
Esther and I were enjoying the natural beauty at Asilomar, in Pacific
Grove, California: an area that Esther had said she hoped she would be able
to enjoy in her old age. We were seated at a table in the Asilomar dining room,
awaiting breakfast, when another couple joined us.
I had been discussing with Esther the dangers and gnawing doubts that I had concerning the development of new, artificially-created forms of life; forms developed in the molecular biologist's laboratory. While I had these fears, I also recognized the promise that such new engineered forms of life might also hold for the future. The other couple started to ask questions. They clearly did not understand very many of the issues involved. Esther explained in detail some of the methodologies used to prevent the escape of such engineered life forms; methods including negative pressure gradients. I noted that the equipment used to create such negative pressure environments could still fail, and wondered if the engineered forms of life then escape. What backup systems existed? Would there not always be the possibility of failures? Esther's viewpoint was that of course failures could always occur, but that great efforts had been made to find ways to prevent such failures. For example: engineering a new life form that would require a unique amino acid to exist1 – a unique amino acid not normally found in nature. Should the engineered life form escape, not being able to find this amino acid, the life form would die.
The other couple at the table were impressed by Esther's knowledge and asked how she knew about these things. Esther explained that she had served as a committee member dealing with precisely these issues. 2, 3, 4, 5
Along these lines: Esther mentioned that at one time she was doing scientific work in the South of the United States, and one of the scientists who headed up the laboratory made a remark that betrayed his prejudice that Black people were not capable of scientific work. Esther explicitly pointed out that this was simply not true.
1 An example would be single amino acid auxotrophs, or mutants affected by vitamins, a nucleic acid precursor, single or multiple drug-resistant or virus-resistant, temperature-sensitive, etc.
2 1975: Molecular biologists from around the world meet at Asilomar, Ca., to write an historic set of rules to guide research in recombinant DNA experiments. The NIH Recombinant DNA Committee issues guidelines aimed at eliminating or minimizing the potential risks in recombinant DNA research.
3 "Recombinant Molecules: Impact on Science and Society: Tenth Miles International Symposium", Beers, Roland F. Jr.; Bassett, Edward, G., Raven Press, New York, N.Y., 1977, p. 90 [discussion of the 1973 Asilomar Meeting on the Potential Hazards of Recombinant DNA Molecules].
4 "Recombinant DNA: The Untold Story", Lear, John; Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1978
5 "Genetic Engineering--Too Dangerous to Continue or Too Important to Discontinue", by E. Garfield, Current Contents, 35, September 1, 1975, pp. 5-11
I read an article in the newspaper dealing with the inheritance of
behavior. I told Esther I had a lot of questions about claims concerning
the scientific basis for such genetic foundations of behavior. My concern
was that genetics could then be used as a form of scientific racism, turned
against races, "mental defectives", various religions, feminism, or other
sociopolitical biases. I was curious to know her opinion, given my fears.
Esther responded with crystal clarity, "Let the scientists say what they
will. They must then provide experimental evidence. To my knowledge, such
experimental evidence has not yet been provided. These are simply claims."
Click for more information.
In an October 15, 1985 interview with T. D. Singh and Pahwan Saharan, it was noted that in Francis Crick's view that it would soon be a very simple matter to create life artificially, now that they had an understanding of DNA structure. Esther's interviewers asked her opinion on such views, and also asked if she thought such views should be censored. Esther's response was effectively the same as that above: "Let Crick or others say what they wish; as scientists they must then be able to provide experimental evidence for what they say. Censorship is not necessary, and even counter-productive", she added, her reasoning being that censorship prevents thoughts from being expressed.
One should bear in mind that while Esther disagreed with Crick's overconfident views (she pointed out that scientists were still unable to create even a living virus), she always viewed Crick with respect, as a close colleague and friend. Disagreements in principle need not imply a loss of respect or friendship.
Click to read the article.
Esther told me that in her opinion the Nobel Prize can often be destructive; that
for example, the Nobel Prize had been very destructive, in her opinion, to her
ex-husband's character. "How silly Josh was (to view himself in such inflated
self-importance and grandeur)," she said with regret. "Soon both of us will be
Click for more information .
Click here to see how quickly scientific researchers are forgotten .
To get another idea of what Esther had in mind, click here to see the accomplishments of Esther M. Zimmer Lederberg. .
Another interesting observation of Esther's about the Nobel Prize, may be found in an October 15, 1985 interview with T. D. Singh and Pahwan Saharan, as follows: " One must stop thinking about the Nobel Laureates as having the last word. They are chosen by a committee that sits in Stockholm. I don't take it very seriously. Many Nobel Laureates get their prizes and they go out speaking about everything as if they know it all. I think if people take that seriously they are very foolish. "
Esther and I went on a trip to Yosemite National Park. It was not so late in the year,
so we could travel Route 120 to Dana Meadows, an area we both thought very beautiful.
When we got to Dana Meadows, we got out of the car and were walking in the meadows. Esther
got down on the ground and pointed out a small flower, smaller than the nail on your pinky.
We both looked at it with great absorption. Esther said "So many of nature's most beautiful
creations are very small, and often overlooked."
Examples of natural beauty can be found everywhere, such as the curious but beautiful shapes of tafoni found along the California Pacific coast.
Click here to see tafoni
Esther told me that many of the scientific conferences took place at sites favored because they also afforded attendees the opportunity to ski. Esther could not ski, so instead she did the unusual thing of hiking with snowshoes.
Esther and I were discussing the film "Andromeda Strain," by Michael
Crichton. Esther had told me that a number of people felt she had been the
model for the female scientist in this film. When the issue came up of
trying to determine how to find factors to control the 'alien life form',
Esther commented that "Crichton never got it right." I asked her what she
meant. She replied that if an extraterrestrial life form were caught
in an outer space probe and brought back to Earth, whatever would
counteract it would with high probability be caught along with it in the
same probe, because living things are always surrounded in their
environment by those things that counteract it. "They should simply have
looked in the same net," she said. "They would have found what they
needed to control the alien life form." I asked her if the types of
laboratories depicted in the film actually existed, or if they were
science fiction. Esther replied that there were five such P4 facilities
in the United States.
Click for more information.
Esther told me of a famous geneticist (Élie Leo Wollman) whose parents
(Elizabeth Wollman and Eugène Wollman) had been researchers at the Institut
Pasteur, in Paris. During World War II, the German Gestapo arrested these Jewish
scientists, who were subsequently sent to Auschwitz and never seen again. The day
of the arrest, as their son (Élie Leo Wollman) was walking towards the
Institut Pasteur to meet his father, family friends quickly grabbed the young boy,
to save him from the waiting Gestapo. Later, these friends hid the young boy in
the catacombs of the Institut Pasteur, caring for him until the end of the war.
Thus, Élie Leo Wollman survived the Holocaust
1 "[André] Lwoff had known Eugène Wollman in the thirties as a scrupulous and dogged experimentalist. Eugène and Elizabeth Wollman, Jews, had been seized by the Gestapo at the end of 1943 - he late in the afternoon of December 10 in the hospital of the Institut Pasteur; she a week earlier. They were sent to Auschwitz and never again heard from. Their son, Élie Leo Wollman, had fought with the maquis in the south of France, and had joined Lwoff's unit at the Pasteur in 1945 a few weeks before Monod."
"The Eighth Day of Creation: The Makers of the Revolution in Biology",
by Judson, H. F., Simon and Schuster, New York, 1979, p. 373
Esther tried to explain the importance of attending the Gordon Conferences. Esther pointed out that at such conferences she had been invited along with the other women to go shopping, as it was not expected that a woman attending the conference could actually be a scientist, and not a wife or a significant other of a MALE scientist. (Or perhaps the organizers had the anti-feminist viewpoint that all women were interested in shopping.) Esther added that it was important to attend the evening socials after the formal talks had taken place. As an example, she noted that during the socials the scientists would point out errors not mentioned during the technical sessions, such as the fact that a molecule referred to had in fact been a dimer.
Esther once told me of a meeting that took place where Esther was the only female scientist. All the men at this meeting were smoking cigars. The chairperson looked up and asked if Esther minded if they smoked cigars. Esther responded that she did, whereupon all the men put out their cigars. After the meeting was over, a female secretary expressed outrage that Esther had dared object to the men smoking cigars! Thus, it was not only men who enforced gender discrimination; in this secretary's view, female scientists ranked lower than male scientists.
Esther told me that at the end of World War II many physicists who had been working to develop the atomic bomb were disgusted and completely disillusioned with the cynical ends to which science had been and was being used by the Government. For this reason, some (such as Leo Szilard, Aaron Novick and Seymour Benzer) decided to change their fields to molecular biology. When an attendee at one of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories Symposia remarked, "The problem we have in molecular biology is that we are not sufficiently trained in mathematics," the former nuclear physicists in the audience smiled to themselves.
At another Cold Spring Harbor Symposium, while walking back to her dormitory room Esther noted a number of signs in the grassy areas between paths, stating that the plants were of an endangered species and asking guests not to walk on them. This puzzled Esther, who had studied botany and thought the plants looked perfectly ordinary. Esther later encountered James Watson, whom she had been told was responsible for these signs, and asked him about the plants. Watson admitted that he wasn't an expert on botany; that in fact he knew about as much about botany as he did about astronomy. Esther asked him how much he knew about astronomy and Watson replied, "Absolutely nothing." He just hadn't wanted people to wander off the paths and destroy the landscaping.
In addition to her love of, and proficiency in, languages, literature, music, microbiology and genetics, Esther loved botany. Esther felt that Stanford University would do well to foster indigenous plants such as poppies, lupins, Fremontia, Western lilac, etc. around the Stanford campus. As the Stanford (Palo Alto) area is a natural desert with frequent droughts, it would be beneficial to include indigenous plants that were suited to the area and would not require extra watering.
One day, Esther and I were discussing Botany. Esther felt that children in the public schools should be taught a little Botany. As an example, Esther pointed out that the stem of plants in the pea family have a square (angular) shape that is easily recognized. Esther said that rather than having students memorize taxonomic categories, it would be more useful if these students were taught that plants in the pea family grow in nitrogen-deficient soil.
Esther told me two interesting stories about her childhood. Her zayde (grandfather,
derived from "tata" or "father"), lived in upstate New York. Esther's grandfather
attempted to teach Hebrew to Esther's several male cousins, but these
young boys would have nothing to do with it! On the other hand, Esther was
happy to learn Hebrew. Although her grandfather was disappointed that the young
boys couldn't read Hebrew during Passover, Esther made her grandfather happy
by doing all the reading.
Another story Esther told me was that she always wondered how her zayde knew what mischief she and her cousins got into. One day, she visited her zayde in his room (he lived in room in the attic of a farm house), she saw that her grandfather had a grand stand view from his window! Zayde knew everything because he could see everything.
As a young child, Esther had been warned about "vicious" dogs, so initially Esther
feared dogs. Later, while living in upstate New York, Esther came to appreciate a
local dog, "Skip". From then on, Esther enjoyed animals.
Esther told me an anecdote about a cat she loved, who had lived with her at her Stanford house. The cat was named "Maximum Velocity" – "Maxi", for short.
While Esther and Maxi were sitting together on the living room couch couch one morning, there was a sudden jolt. This jolt was a small earthquake. Maxi turned to Esther and gently patted Esther with his paw, as if to say "Don't jolt the couch!". Maxi thought that Esther (not the earthquake) was responsible.
Click to see more
On a few occasions Esther told me how she and Josh were exasperated at Max Delbrück (known as "The Pope"). For example, when Delbrück was informed of scientific experiments that did not conform to his prejudices, he wanted to either ignore those experiments or re-interpret the results. I asked, "Didn't he then find a problem trying to impose his prejudices in place of the Scientific Method?" "That was the problem," Esther responded.
Esther told me that at a very scientifically prolific time, she and Josh and others would tell their French colleagues about their latest (as yet unpublished) experiments in genetics. Hoping to gain priority, the French investigators quickly wrote up the experimental discoveries they had been told of, and published in lesser journals that didn't have strict requirements. Esther said that she and Josh soon learned to follow the French, and not to be so generous in sharing their scientific discoveries (not automatically assume that scientists would also be principled). Esther noted that in one case the French jumped to an incorrect conclusion and published results that she and Josh had discovered; upon realizing their mistake, the French were forced to repudiate and withdraw their own paper.
Esther explained that while it is an honour to be asked to be a reviewer
of technical papers, it also involves a great deal of work: a reviewer has
a lot of responsibility. Esther told me that when she was asked to review
a peper, she would read the paper and imagine at every step, what
had to be done. If Esther saw that some step had been omitted, or that some
conclusion was not justified, she would request additional information. This
request sometimes had the unintended consequence of either delaying publication,
or even disqualifying the paper from publication. Though her reviews were
detailed and honest, journals sometimes preferred not to use Esther in
this peer review process. It was easier to get less honest, less critical,
less knowledgeable reviewers, even if papers subsequently had to be withdrawn.
For example, go to http://www.estherlederberg.com/EImages/Archive/ArchiveIndex.html ; click Soffer, Richard > Draft Review Comments and Errata. Four reviews are provided. The first three are one page apiece; Esther M. Lederberg's review is six pages long.
In speaking of her years working in Josh's laboratory, Esther once
told me that she observed that whenever she discovered something
important, Josh immediately took her off the project and assigned
the work to someone else. She concluded that if she wanted to
do scientific work it would be better for her to quietly complete
the work herself, without telling Josh.
The work Esther did with her discovery of Lambda phage was also delayed by Josh, but in that case, it was for an entirely different reason.
Esther told me that in many cases, simply washing your hands carefully with soap and water is sufficient to preventing the spread of bacterial illnesses. A simple solution, yet one rarely employed systematically. Once, at a party with Josh, Esther warned Josh not to eat the deviled eggs, set upon a table in the sun. Pasteur would have most assuredly advised the same, especially as children with their unwashed hands were continually touching these eggs. Unfortunately, Josh did not listen to Esther's advice, and ate some of these eggs. Fortunately, he got over the illness in a short while!
I was discussing Barbara McClintock's work with corn with Esther. Esther told me that at one Cold Spring Harbor Symposium Barbara McClintock reported that corn seemed to violate Mendelian genetic distributions. In this discussion, Sewall Wright took the view that Barbara McClintock simply didn't understand the mathematics (a weakness in mathematics he felt was common of most women). Dr. McClintock, dismissive of Wright's prejudice, said "I have gone over the figures again and again and again. They don't work. After this meeting I will provide you with the experimental information. You can look at the experimental evidence and correct me if I'm wrong." Of course, McClintock was right, and Sewall Wright was wrong. I asked Esther if Barbara McClintock had previously expressed doubts concerning Mendelian genetic distributions. Esther responded, "Previous to her work with corn, Barbara McClintock would have strongly agreed with Wright." (Barbara McClintock had not been biased: she was influenced by the experimental evidence alone.)
It had just been announced that Jim Watson (and others) had won the Nobel
Prize. At precisely this time, Jim was at Cold Spring Harbor Labs. A number of
colleagues secretly decided to honour Jim. Esther, a close associate, was
taken into their confidence. Esther was assigned a specific task. It was
required that Esther be immediately behind Jim on the cafeteria
breakfast line. When the time came, Esther was assigned the task of ensuring
that a particular hardboiled egg found its way onto Jim's tray. Esther
took the special egg, placed it on Jim's tray, saying "It's good for you, Jim!"
Jim looked a bit puzzled, shrugged his shoulders, and went to sit down. Eyes
were fixed surreptitiously on Jim as he ate his breakfast. When Jim came to
the egg and opened it, a blue coloured helix fell out.
It is an interesting historic note that Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories was quite aware of Esther Lederberg's death but never published an Esther Lederberg obituary! It is even more surprising that Esther's ex-husband and long-time colleague is not known to have ever expressed any condolences or anything at all to anyone about Esther, after Esther Lederberg's death - a fact noted by a number of people.
Shortly before Jonas Salk died, he gave a talk. Esther, a long-time associate of Dr. Salk's, attended his talk. The main point that Jonas Salk held was that the new and up-and-coming scientists needed to emphasize that science was for the benefit of mankind. After the talk, Jonas Salk saw Esther in the front row of the audience and came over to talk with her. He asked Esther what she thought of his talk. Esther told me that she told Jonas she disagreed with his stated view, because she thought that these new scientists were already very strongly interested in the good of mankind.
At one point in Stanley Cohen's birthday celebration at the Silverado, in Napa CA, one of the scientists said that he had no one (no child) to whom he could pass important scientific information. Esther immediately remarked "Your work and your students are your children."
Esther and two other women at Stanford noted that there were no
women professors at Stanford. All three got together to request that a
woman be appointed as a professor. Esther researched the question, then
all three women presented their complaint to a dean. The dean responded
that none of the women were qualified, as a professor must have published
enough papers and none of the women in question met this requirement.
Esther pointed out that most of the male professors didn't satisfy the
requirement either. The dean responded that there was not sufficient
funds to appoint a woman professor. Esther pointed out that funds had
been specifically allocated for that purpose. The dean countered that the
monies in question had been allocated to promote minorities that at that
time were politically active and creating an embarrassment for Stanford
University. Esther pointed out that this was an unauthorized spending of
funds that were specifically designated for women: also a minority. The
dean relented, saying that only one highly-qualified woman would receive
an appointment as a professor. The three women were all highly qualified,
but only Esther requested to be appointed as a "Research Professor", an
untenured position (the other two women requested tenured positions). Only
Esther was appointed, in part, because the position requested was not
Click for a discussion of gender discrimination in academia in the mid-20th century
Esther told me of a Russian geneticist. The Russian geneticist (who suffered from Tuberculosis) was opposed by T. D. Lysenko. When the scientist stated that Lysenko's opposition to genetics was unscientific, that Lysenko was not qualified, Lysenko replied "Yes, but Stalin listens to me!" In order to dispose of this scientist, the scientist was assigned to work in Vladivostok, a part of the Siberian littoral located on the Pacific coast. Medical doctors had assured Stalin that the scientist in question would not likely survive long at Vladivostok, given his tuberculosis. The scientist's correspondence was censored, of course, but Esther received a post card from this scientist before he died. The post card had nothing written on it but his name, but it showed a monkey in a cage.
Scientists are always ethical, aren't they? Esther told me that experienced microbiologists doing original research often refused to return mail. The reason was that competitors would attempt (sometimes successfully) to obtain experimental microorganisms that contaminated the return mail envelope.
Esther feared that physicians were ignoring the advice of most geneticists and
microbiologists regarding bacterial resistance. When Esther contracted a
bladder infection, her physician prescribed an antibiotic. Esther questioned
her physician's prescription, asking if there was an alternative. Her physician
confirmed that there was an alternative to using antibiotics, but that very few
patients had the fortitude and persistence to follow the regime: drinking very
large amounts of water to literally flush out the infection.
Esther chose not to use antibiotics. Eventually she returned and asked the physician when she should stop drinking water. The physican was amazed that Esther had not filled the prescription, and had cured her own infection. "Are you still drinking water?" he asked in shock.
So many physicians seem determined to subvert medical practice. Esther was correct: the physicians will not follow the advice of researchers, and bacterial resistance is becoming an ever-increasing problem.
Esther told me that once, when at home playing the piano, she played a
piece by Hayden. Suddenly, Esther's father stood bolt upright, arms stifly
to his side in a salute! The Hayden piece had a number of modified versions,
one of which became the anthem of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Esther's
father had been born in 1896 and attended school in Sereth, Bukowina, a
part of the 19th century Austro-Hungarian empire.
Report Card for David Hausrat [later David Zimmer], Boys Public School, Sereth, Bukowina
Esther and I shared an interest in botany
Esther and I had examined the Stanford Arboretum, lamenting how it had not been taken care of. Soon Esther and I read in the Stanford Report that the Arboretum was now being take care of, and indeed, a rare Boojum tree (Fuquieriaceae family) had been added to the Arboretum. The Boojum is typically found in the Ocatillo desert of Baja California. The Boojum, like cacti, has a very small surface area-to-volume ratio (to decrease water loss). In the case of the Boojum (which Esther and I quickly went to view); the branches are diminuitive, protruding at right angles from the trunk. Some might think this plant isn't the most attractive, but the Boojum can exist where few plants can!
Esther told me an interesting story about C. B. van Niel. Esther took a
course taught by C. B. van Niel at the Hopkins Marine Station in 1945. The
students were shown slides that were at great variance from the slides shown
in most books. The students remarked upon this. Dr. van Niel pointed out that
depending upon the environmental conditions and the specific point in the
life cycle of organisms, they might appear quite differently. The students
were assigned experimental work to do. The students immediately went to the
library to do preliminary research and found no papers about the organism
save a few written in Dutch. The students reported back to van Niel that the
only papers they could find were written in Dutch and that they could not
read Dutch. Dr. van Niel told his students that if they were interested in
becoming scientists, then if required, they had better be prepared to learn
to read whatever languages required to do their research. Dr. van Niel's
honesty was commendable!
Some Hopkins Marine Station friends
Esther and Josh were continually beset by Dr. Shockley (of racist fame).
Dr. Shockley sought "genetic" evidence to support his racist views. Esther
told me of a time outside Tresidder when seated at a table, Dr. Shockley
intruded upon their privacy and once again attempted to cajole genetic
"evidence" to support his racist views from Esther and Josh. Esther told
me that during this conversation, at every opportunity, she broke into
Shockley's conversation in an attempt to divert the unpleasant discussions:
Esther was not a racist and opposed Shockley's racist views and thought
there was no scientific support for racism. Esther always opposed such racist
At another time, Esther's second husband Matthew, asked about Charles Davenport's racist ideas concerning Eugenics. Esther noted that the Eugenics Record Office (the ERO, which was later headquartered at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories) had written papers about two families, the Kalikaks and the Jukes, to support eugenics. Esther recalled that it was later found that these families, which were originally studied due to their high population of "congenital" problems with intelligence, actually suffered from economic hardship, which brought malnutrition and a lack of education. Once both those factors were ameliorated, both families became effectively like all other families. Perhaps Charles Davenport, whose family had been in the United States since the advent of the Puritains, was unable to understand the problems of poverty.
Click here for an expanded discussion.
Click for more information.
Esther was a bit upset with her friend, Jonas Salk. Esther explained that Polio appears in waves and that the drastically reduced incidence could conceivably be explained as the tail end of an epidemic wave, rather than due to the Polio vaccine. Keeping careful records could help elucidate this, but Salk did not keep good records.
Esther and Josh took note that a scientist they worked with had the unpleasant habit of trying to plagiarize their work. Both Esther and Josh viewed this as a joke, because this scientist was quite capable in laboratory work, but less than distinguished in his theoretical capabilities. Esther and Josh casually mentioned a "great discovery" they had made in the presence of this scientist (in fact, this "discovery" was entirely without foundation). The scientist immediately published the "great discovery", but was never able to provide details that would allow this discovery to be repeated. Eventually, the claims to this "great discovery" were quietly withdrawn in a relatively unknown journal.
Esther told me the story of a very small group of researchers that gravitated towards each other as they were interested in the same research problems. They did the work that most interested them as a sideline to the research work that they did at the university. Every so often, another researcher would join their group, bringing specialized knowledge and skills. The collective knowledge and skills of this research group was unique, not to be matched anywhere else. Eventually, this small group of researchers all worked together in a pharmaceutical company. This small group were making breathtaking progress. The pharmaceutical company was bought out. The new owners were interested only in immediate profits, and did all they could to prevent the group from working on the problems that most interested them. Pressured to stop their research and instead, to work on mundane, money making areas, one after another of the researchers left the pharmaceutical company: the research group was finally dissolved. Suddenly, the new owners of the pharmaceutical company realized that the research interests of this small group was in a very profitable area. This realization came too late, as these industrial leaders had worked very effectively to destroy the research, and instead the pharmaceutical company went out of business.
One of Esther's relatives had a very interesting job: he was the music critic for one of New York City's newpapers. Esther knew that this relative was deaf, so Esther was curious and asked him how he could perform as a music critic? He responded "I read what the other (out of town) music critics wrote and effectively wrote the same thing!"
Esther and I traveled to Grass Valley, California where Esther would participate in a concert with the Mid Peninsula Recorder Orchestra (MPRO). At dinner time we ate at a nice local restaurant. When dinner was served, there was a vegetable that neither of us had previously seen. Simultaneously, Esther and I were instantly transported by curiousity by this new vegetable (brocolli flower, also called Romanesque broccoli). A few days later (in Palo Alto) while shopping, I saw this vegetable on sale at a local grocery store. I bought this vegetable to surprise Esther (another pleasant reminder of our Grass Valley experience). I presented this surprise to Esther, but Esther had also seen this vegetable and bought it to surprise me. We simultaneously presented our gifts to each other. We were both happy in sharing the same interests and in caring for each other.
Esther told me a sad story. A Stanford scientist did research in the
older, more traditional areas of biology, specifically, the area that
included lizards such as the "Tiger lizard".
1 As molecular biology was
the favoured area of research, the scientist could not secure research
funds, was barely secure in teaching at Stanford. This scientist, having
other family problems as well, eventually committed suicide. Shortly
after, Stanford once again started to pay attention to the older, more
traditional areas of biology, but too late to help this scientist. As in
all fields of study, there are fads, new areas of research dominate, only
to eventually be replaced by yet another area of favoured research.
Esther's area started out in the more traditional areas of microbiology and genetics, but also included molecular genetics. Soon, biology became totally dominated by molecular genetics. When one considers epigenetics, retroviruses, prions, the interplay of DNA and RNA with proteins, etc. it may soon be found that molecular genetics does not tell the entire story. Perhaps these older, more traditional areas of research that Esther worked in such as microbiology, will be found to be an area of research that can fill out missing scientific information? Esther would be pleased, I think, to see traditional areas of biology once again being studied, not just the biochemistry of DNA, RNA and proteins.
1 See V. C. Twitty, at http://www.estherlederberg.com/EImages/Archive/PhotoSlidesIndex.html/
Frank Lloyd Wright's daring and revolutionary architecture was well-known
to be designed to fit in with its environment: a principle he often
emphasized and took credit for. One might wonder, then, how the Arabian
motifs of the Wright-designed Marin County (California) Civic Center arose
from its setting near San Francisco Bay? Did Wright really think that
California was attached to the Arabian Peninsula? When Esther visited
Taleisin, due to her renown, she was given the rare opportunity of visiting
Frank Lloyd Wright's workshop area. Esther was interested in a building that
Wright had been commissioned to provide for a client in Saudi Arabia. Later,
when Wright's contract with the Saudis was cancelled, this same design suddenly
appeared in the California environment. Thus, while environment maintained a
high priority for Wright, his love of his own designs was apparently of higher
priority than environmental considerations. Esther's photo slides include multiple
photos taken at Taleisin.
Click to see San Rafael on the Arabian Sea.
Why did Esther 'retire' and cease to do laboratory research? Although
Esther continued to work maintaining the Plasmid Reference Center (PRC)
after she ceased to do laboratory research, the question remains, "Why
did Esther 'retire' and cease to do laboratory research?".
Esther never had tenure, and funding was an ever-present problem. It was very difficult to obtain lab assistants with an adequate education and adequate lab experience due to insufficient or precarious funding. When Esther found that her lab assistants were attempting to falsify experimental results, Esther had to add "controls" to guard the "controls"! Esther felt that after a period of time, she would not be able to trust any experimental results. Thus, due to inadequate funding, the time had come to end her experimental studies, and to "retire".
Click for more information.
Esther told me an interesting story about how she and her first husband
Joshua moved from Wisconsin to California to continue their research. The
entire lab at the University of Wisconsin, including many of their researchers
moved to California.
The University of California, Berkeley (UC-Berkeley), had offered a position to do research: to head up the Department of Genetics. When Esther and Josh came to the San Francisco area, prepared to move their lab to the Berkeley area, they were met with an unexpected situation. To save money, UC-Berkeley decided not to provide air-conditioning in the laboratory. Perhaps the University officials thought this a "personal" luxury? Of course, all the research materials requiring air-conditioning would be destroyed, lacking proper temperature controls. Once it became clear that UC-Berkeley would not reverse its position, Esther and Josh immediately entered into discussions with Stanford University, pointing out (once again) the necessity to have air-conditioning. Of course, Stanford immediately offered laboratories with the necessary environmental controls to continue the research. Thus the research that Esther and Josh did that led to a Nobel Prize was associated with the University of Wisconson and Stanford University rather than UC-Berkeley. .
Esther had an aspect that could be very humorous. Esther was explaining that when she invented replica plating (which led to her discovery of transduction, with other researchers and Joshua helping too), the budget available was very limited. With a few dollars, a hoop and a piece of sterilized velveteen proved adequate for replica plating. She noted that now, there are all sorts of patented machines that do no more than replica plating, some quite expensive (even thousands of dollars), but at their core are no more than her original velveteen replicator!
Esther had a wide and deep knowledge of literature. One important author of
interest was Charles Dickens. At one time, Esther mentioned that "dancing
masters" taught dancing by playing a fiddle while simultaneously demonstrating
the steps. Later, I (also interested in Charles Dickens) realized
that Esther knew that the dancing master used a "kit"
(a special kind of fiddle).
It was a great privilege to know Esther, a woman with such a great mind, but even more: such a wonderfully good, sensitive person. I will always remember, honour, and miss my loving wife Esther: we thought and valued the same way.
"There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability
of mind and purpose."
"David Copperfield", Chapter XLV, Charles Dickens