In the letters above, Joshua Lederberg points out that several people have identified him with the primary character "Dr. Jeremy Stone" in the book (and film) "The Andromeda Strain", by Michael Crichton. Joshua Lederberg strongly objected to any such identification between himself and this character, who is shown using maps obtained from Biological Warfare research institutions. (Of course, to do research at Camp Detrick a decade earlier, Joshua Lederberg himself had a TOP SECRET clearance.)
Joshua Lederberg was one of the few researchers doing research in transduction. Transduction can be used to transfer DNA subsequences from viruses to bacteria, and between bacteria. It is conceivable that DNA sequences, if found in extraterrestrial environments, might also be capable of transduction with terrestrial life forms. This offers the possibility of using extraterrestrial DNA as a biological weapon. Furthermore, the realization of this form of transduction might even be transferred to a very common bacterium, such as E. coli. Such a synthetic E. coli biological weapon might also be coupled with an E. coli that is a temperature-sensitive mutant, which would be likely to survive only within limited ranges of temperature. For example, an E. coli temperature-sensitive biological weapon could be targeted for deployment in a place like Cuba, and might offer difficulties in spreading to other areas in the United States. If biological warfare was subsequently suspected the perpetrator could say that this was merely a more virulent form of E. coli. Thus the use of such a biological weapon could be hard to prove.
Once he was no longer actively engaged in microbial genetics research, Joshua Lederberg did work in the field of "exobiology" (or "esobiology")1, 2, terms Joshua Lederberg himself coined. The following section explores some parallels between the techniques used to create biological weapons, and the technologies used by exobiologists.
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The Space Studies Board (later renamed the Space Science Board) enlisted the support of such public scientific figures as Aaron Novick (who participated in the Manhattan Project, then left nuclear science due to his disgust at having helped create a destructive weapon that could not be controlled), Carl Sagan, Salvador Luria (briefly blacklisted for his outspoken political opinions until shortly after he became co-recipient of the Nobel prize in 1968), and Harold C. Urey (who had done experiments to show that precursors of life could spontaneously form in outer space), as well as other prominent geneticists. Most of these researchers apparently felt that Fort Detrick, with its expertise in contamination and possible back-contamination, would be an appropriate resource for developing ways to avoid contamination in the space program. However, exobiology also had a covert purpose: the decontamination of returning space vehicles could also be used to clandestinely collect any non-terrestrial microbial life forms found on or in returning space vehicles, which could then be studied for their possible use as agents of biological warfare, as discussed above. It is not clear that these researchers (with the exclusion of Joshua Lederberg) were aware of the possible intention to create new biological weapons. (It should be noted that devices were being created at Fort Detrick with the express purpose of seeking extraterrestrial life forms, as discussed in some of the links below.)
The book and film "The Andromeda Strain" was then used as propaganda to further the uses of Fort Detrick's development of biological warfare. As Joshua Lederberg viewed it, the possible development of offensive biological warfare should be hidden. As he wrote: "...don't let the papers learn you have BW [Biological Warfare] in on the rockets!"
"... by actively defining the American space program as one with 'scientifically valid' goals, they supported the idea of the United States as an 'open society' – a primary component of the American Cold War public relations arsenal. The study of exobiology allowed these civilian scientists simultaneously to proclaim their independence from and offer their support to the U.S. quest for a place in the technoscientific world order." 3
"... the exobiologists faced an uphill battle for scientific legitimacy. Lederberg and his colleagues found themselves in the unusual position of offering a science that sounded remarkably like science fiction as the most valid enterprise of the space program."4
"More practically, exobiology had direct implications for the development of biological weapons. Both scholarly investigations and the anthrax scares of 2001 and 2002 have revealed the extent of the American military's interest in offensive and defensive biological weapons throughout most of the Cold War. Clearly, the nation had an interest in whatever unique microbes might be discovered on the surfaces of other planets, whether to protect earthlings from 'back contamination' or to use the new organisms for darker purposes." 5
"The SSB's (Space Studies Board) suggestions for mechanisms of space probe sterilization offered a marked contrast to their calls for international scientific cooperation. From early in 1959 the SSB strongly recommended that NASA contract with the Army Biological Warfare Laboratories at Fort Detrick, Maryland, to design both sterilization procedures and extraterrestrial microbiological detection devices, noting that researchers at Fort Detrick were 'superbly equipped both in experience and facilities for this type of work.'" [See the figure below for the kinds of biological warfare equipment that a researcher such as Joshua Lederberg could have used at Fort Detrick] ... "Keenly aware of the need for public support, Lederberg admonished a colleague, 'But don't let the papers learn you have BW in on the rockets!'" 6
"Lederberg's correspondence with Charles Phillips of the Biological Warfare Laboratories at Fort Detrick suggests that he had more than a passing familiarity with the experiments conducted and the techniques used at the facility. In responding to a query about possible biological experiments in space, for example, Lederberg commented that Fort Detrick had already conducted studies on the 'survivorship of bacteria in chemical explosions', precluding the need for NASA scientists to repeat this work. He and Phillips shared manuscripts, research results, and ideas for early warning detection systems. This was a mutually beneficial arrangement: Lederberg gained informal access to protected information, and Phillips gained the prestige of association with a Nobel laureate." 7, 8
Esther M. Lederberg told her second husband that Joshua Lederberg had engaged in research at Fort Detrick. An initial attempt to determine the subjects of the research Joshua Lederberg did at that institution was unsuccessful; requests for information under the Freedom Of Information Act (through U.S. Congressperson Anna Eshoo) found no published papers. Why? Papers published at Ft. Detrick are not organized by author, but by exact title. Thus, to find documents, one must first possess the exact title of the very documents sought. This is not censorship per se, as the information is available, but a better strategem to ensure the documents sought will never be found, couldn't be devised. Click here for further information.
However, to our surprise, a careful search of Joshua Lederberg's own "Profiles in Science" NLM website revealed evidence that Joshua Lederberg was under contract to do research at Camp Detrick, and that his research involved efforts to decrease the survivability of targeted exposure to biological warfare agents. To verify this, click here.