Joshua Lederberg Press Conference (Reception of Nobel Prize)
Madison, Wisconsin: October 31, 1958
The Joshua Lederberg Press Conference about the Reception
of Nobel Prize, was recorded at Madison, Wisconsin, on
October 31, 1958. A copy of an audio recording was
provided by the courtesy of the University of Wisconsin,
Madison Archive. The transcription of this Press Conference
below is taken from that recording. The audio recording takes
about a half-hour to listen to, and may be found at:
Transcription of Press Conference
Well, I think the first thing I'd want to not just say but stress,
is the cooperative nature of research these days. By this I mean
not so much the fact that we work in teams in a single laboratory,
although this is more and more true with the growing complexity of
scientific work, but rather the mutual dependence of work that goes
on in one laboratory; on the contributions that are made throughout
the world. From this point of view, the Nobel awards, by focusing
as they do so vehemently on individual accomplishments, fall short,
I think, of creating the most accurate picture of the nature of
scientific work as it goes on today. This — I wouldn't want to
demean the contributions that Beadle and Tatum have made as
individuals and my own work has followed very directly from the paths
which they blazed — but beyond them there are dozens or hundreds
of other workers who are putting the bricks into place for the
development of the structure. This is true as to various degrees of
relationships between one laboratory and another.
In the development of my own work, I feel very abashed to have this
attention without mentioning the numerous associates and students
and fellows that I've had in my own lab, and the people on whom I've
relied and whose ideas and work have been extremely important.
First among these is my wife, who is my close
associate in the laboratory. And then I
happen to have a list of a number of people who have been in the lab
before, and I'd like to give you an idea of the international
distribution of this cooperation by mentioning some of their names
and where they're located at the present time.
Putting them in alphabetical order, there's:
Dr. S.G. Bradley, who's at the Department of Microbiology of Minnesota;
Dr. L. L. Cavalli, who's in Institute of Genetics at the University
of Milan, Italy;
Dr. Phil Edwards, who's at the Communicable Diseases Center, Public
Health Service, Conley, Georgia
Dr. M. L. Morse, who's at the University of Colorado Medical Center
Dr. Bruce Stocker, who's at the Lister Institute in London (and
from whom I received a very gracious telephone call yesterday);
Robert Wright, who's at the Department of Bacteriology at Melbourne
Dr. Norton Zinder, who's at the Rockefeller Institute in New York;
Dr. Tetsuo Iino, who's in Missima, Japan.
These people are now scattered all over the world, but they've been
in my laboratory at one time or another and they've played an
indispensable part in the development of the research program which
the Nobel Committee chooses to recognize by mentioning my name.
And of course I have to mention the people from whom I first
learned my trades, and they're primarily Professor Francis
Ryan at Columbia University and Professor Tatum who's a
co-recipient of the award here.
And this is only the top layer of the levels of interdependence
that I really want to stress is the main fabric of scientific
research at the present time. There have been many other students
and fellows in the laboratory; much more than that, through the
medium of scientific publication, there is an incredibly
intricate technique of communication of scientific information; I
think the pubic can't begin to be aware of the complexity of it
and the intensity of it, and this is the way scientists
communicate with each other on an intimate day-to-day basis, and
this is the only way in which we can make progress in this day
Can you explain to the group so that we can actually understand,
a little about how you go about doing — I think we all have
a description of what the discovery is, what the breakthrough is,
that you were given the prize for — how you go about doing these
things with this material that you can't see?
Well, the approach to analyzing sexuality in bacteria was, as
you pointed out, one that did not require seeing what was going
on. It meant looking for evidence of genetic recombination, by
the exchange of hereditary traits. Now, the possibility that
bacteria might have sexual processes was considered during the
earlier years of this century on the basis of attempts of visual
observation. People looked to see whether or not there were
mating processes going on in bacterial cultures. By and large,
these observations were inconclusive and I think for the most
part rejected as having no basis in fact, or not being verifiable.
On the basis of the work that Beadle and Tatum did around 1940,
on the biochemical genetics of fungi, techniques were developed
that made it possible to look for recombination not at the level
of visual observation of mating, but looking to see whether there
were in mixtures of different kinds of bacteria, cross-bred progeny.
It was as if we had a population of cattle, one group of which was
old or hornless and black, and the other group of which was brown
and had horns. We knew nothing else about the biology of cattle, but
if we left a field with a mixed herd, after a number of years we
would discover that there were calves being produced that were black
but had horns, or that were brown, and did not have horns, although
the pure line herd would remain true to type. Knowing nothing else
about the biology of cattle, and having no common sense information
about the barnyard, you would still be able to conclude that cattle
were able to undergo genetic recombination.
Well, in order to apply this type of test for a genetic exchange, in
order to apply a progeny test, you'd have to have clear-cut markers;
you'd have to have features of bacteria that for the technical
purposes of this experiment would correspond to the horned or
not-horned, or to the black or brown. Well, bacteria are so small,
that there isn't very much about them by way of their visual
appearance that would be useful to look at. However, by looking at
their physiological characteristics, by seeing how they differ in
biochemical ways, we do find — and this is on the basis of the
work Beadle and Tatum have done with fungi — ways of
recognizing different types of bacteria, and this is what was
exploited in looking for recombination. Now in fact black or
brown is also a biochemical difference. It has to do with the
particular chemical composition of the pigment that's formed
in the skin, but by looking for more subtle chemical differences
we could find markers, as we call them, that we could use instead
of [unintelligible] the bacteria.
Now subsequent to that, by the guidance that we could get by
looking at the genetic recombination of processes in mixed culture,
we have the necessary clues by which ultimately it was possible to
see what was going on in visual terms. This might have been possible
earlier, but we had no way of checking up on the results until we had
markers to work with to see whether what looked like mating events really
were, and whether they had as a consequence the occurrence of hybrid
Well, I have some pictures here which are not the best that have
been produced — Professor Anderson at the University of
Pennsylvania has since made much more elegant photographs —
but here's a picture of bacteria mating. (I hope I can furnish them;
I'm looking for the negative; it's filed away somewhere in the lab.)
This is an electron micrograph, and it might give you some idea of
the scale here. Here are two bacteria which have fused near one
end. This is the characteristic way in which these cells are able to
mate with one another.
Now this distance, the width of one of these bacterial cells, is a
unit we call one micron. A micron is one-twenty-eight thousandth part
of an inch. So it takes — even the ordinary light microscope is
not sufficiently powerful to give detail of these dimensions, and this
is a photograph taken with an electron microscope, with the cooperation,
I might add, of Professor Caseberg in the Department of Biochemistry.
I don't want to bore you by always giving other people's names, but
this is really such a fundamental aspect of scientific research, that
it has to be emphasized. Yes. As I said, Professor Anderson has
developed superior techniques of electron micrography, and has a better
Now, a picture like this, by itself, would not have been utterly
convincing as evidence of genetic recombination or sexuality. You
might have said, "Well, these two cells are just stuck together for
some irrelevant reason, and it's not evidence that would hold up in
court." In order to verify that this is a mating process, it's
necessary to manipulate these cells, so that we can follow the
progeny from each of these cells after they have mated in this way.
You can see the same sort of thing going on in living cells; here we
have to use the light microscope and we have nothing like the detail,
but here are some prints of cells, showing approximately what they
look like they they're living. They have been stained in order to
improve the photography, but this gives you an idea of how much detail
we can see. Well, we can look for pairs — there's a pair over
here — observe that they are stuck together by seeing them under
the microscope, then leave them alone for about an hour, and then pick
out the individual cells that have been paired and look at their
progeny. We find that the progeny of one of these cells will have
genetic characteristics that must have been derived from the
other cell. So we say that there has been a genetic exchange going on,
and we can then correlate what we see under the microscope with the
genetic factors that we can identify by looking at the chemical traits
of the bacteria when they have grown up.
I think that's the essence of the story.
I think Dr. Lederberg said that this might lead the way toward a cure
for cancer. Can you go into that for a little bit?
Well, I think there's always a temptation when pressed by the public, to look for
practical applications for what one does, and because this is what might be the easiest
to explain. I would say that in the first instance that Tatum and Beadle and I, I'm sure,
are not thinking of a cure for cancer in the work that we design. We're not thinking of any
industrial application or any medical application or agricultural or any other. I think this
doesn't make us out to be un-humanitarian in our ultimate motivations; I think as a matter of
experience that our society was founded, the fundamental research which
is not directed to any practical goal, is in fact the best method of getting the fundamental information
that's needed to solve practical problems; and that too close an adherence to the goal is NOT the way to
solve practical questions. Now, the fact is that when it comes to looking for cures for cancer, that asking
that question in its baldest form is not like a cure for cancer. The problem is that we simply lack
the necessary basic information about growth, about the heredity of cells, and so on, that would be
needed to make the intelligent approach to that question. From that point of view, to the extent that we are
devoted to studying the behavior and the growth and inheritance of characteristics in cells, the information
that comes out inevitably will have some bearing on cures for cancer; but there is still much that has
to be learned about the fundamentals of it. It's like having to learn the language before you can read
Shakespeare. When you teach someone the alphabet, you're not thinking about whether he's going to be
writing newspaper articles or whatever uses he's going to be making of that skill.
Dr. Lederberg, how does it feel personally to win the Nobel prize? Has it made much of a change in your life since
Well, there's been a certain amount of harassment from newspaper reporters. I think that's been the
principal change here for the time being.
Isn't that sort of a pleasant harassment?
We have to harass Nobel
prize-winning scientists just the way you have to harass bacteria in your
libraries, sir. That's the way we make our discoveries.
I'm by no means unsympathetic
to your task. Don't misunderstand me.
How did you learn of this, sir? Have you been notified?
I received a cable from Stockholm yesterday afternoon, which was my first formal notification. The press has
published a certain amount of gossip on this point; I think I'd better not remark on that subject.
Do you have any plans for spending the $20,000?
No. Haven't thought about it. I think the usual remark in the circumstances is to say that my wife will
discover excellent uses for it.
I notice — well, I don't notice, I know, sir, that you several months ago remarked that Stanford University had asked you to come out there
to take over their Department of Medical Biology, or Genetics —
— Department of Genetics. And it's in the Medical School at Stanford, yes.
Will this make any difference in your plans to go out to the West?
Oh, I don't think so.
You're still going? You may reconsider?
The question hadn't occurred to me that it would make any difference, and I'm busily making all sorts of plans,
and it would create incredible confusion if they were altered at this stage in the game.
Is there any reason why you're leaving Wisconsin? Are you dissatisfied here?
No, I think Wisconsin is one of the finest Universities in the country in all points of view. I'm not sure
I can enumerate all of the reasons that finally altered the balance in my own decision. It was not an easy
one to make. I certainly would not have been unhappy to have stayed. There were certain very particular lines
of research that I was interested in undertaking immediately, that, on balance, seemed to be easier to
manage at Stanford than here. It was a short-term situation, but one that happened to be convenient
enough to make it warrantable.
Sir, I've been told that you asked for some people on your staff, that you didn't get, here, and that this is one
of the reasons that influenced your decision to leave for Stanford.
Well, I think nothing has happened here that would be any discredit to the Administration, or
the Faculty; I certainly wouldn't want that impression at all. I've had certain plans for development
here that for one reason or the other haven't come through; for the most part they've involved other
commitments that people I wanted to ask had made, rather than what's happened here. I'd say that
over the years that Genetics has possibly not had the recognition that it felt it should have, by
way of space and facilities and so forth; I think that's remark you might get from any group
in a University. That was not an immediate consideration; it's a consideration that was well on
its way to being solved in part, at least as far as I was concerned, by my move over into Medical Genetics
this year. But I hope the University does take account of these remarks in any case.
Are you going to follow on the same lines of research you have been, or have you had some
Well, for the most part I'm planning to continue the work that we've been doing on the
genetics of bacteria. However — and this goes back to one of your previous questions --
just as the development of the biochemical genetic approach that Beadle and Tatum did was
so fruitful in the analysis of the genetics of bacteria, I think the total present information
that we have now gives us some exciting prospects for looking and experimentally analyzing the genetics of
tissue cells; and this comes much closer to questions of the nature of cancer, for example.
Human tissue or animal tissue?
Well, I had a thought about this, which I might just as well express: I would say animal tissues
because, for experimental situations, mice are very much more suitable than human material and
if one's goal is fundamental knowledge, one should use the best experimental material that's
available. I think there's been some overemphasis on using human material per se, because
of the media's goal orientation. I think that sometimes this has been a mistake. For example,
in genetical analysis inbred lines of mice can be — first of all, we know their genetic
constitution, and second, they can be subject to experimental matings that are at will for
experimental purposes, and so on. And I think that mammalian genetics has not had the
attention it deserves for the development of fundamental knowledge that could be
indispensable in human problems.
This has nothing to do with the Nobel prize, but I remember several months ago
I had a discussion with you about the so-called "lunar contamination". You had given
a speech in Washington.
Since that time there was an attempt to fire a rocket at the moon. Are you still concerned about
having this contamination from the moon?
Well, you might say this has been something of a hobby of mine. I think the
matter has been brought to the attention of the necessary authorities, and that
was the main point of the remarks that lot of them make. I think the question had
not been thought of before then, and I understand the Air Force and other agencies
are taking this into account in their plans. I don't know the details of them, and
I sent around a survey.
Dr. Lederberg, there's so much interest in the development of more scientists
in this country. It might be interesting to know what some of the earliest
influences were that drew you into this field.
Well, I certainly share the concern for the development of wholesome
attitudes about science and the nature of scientists and so forth. I'm not
sure that my own experience was entirely typical in judging what I've heard
about others, insofar as I've been interested in science in my earliest
recollections. I've always known what I wanted to do, at least in general
terms, and I think I've been incredibly lucky in being able to do it.
Exactly what was it?
I don't know the ultimate origins. They go back so early in my childhood
I think it would take a psychoanalyst to find out. I'm sure by the time I
was 5 or 6 I already had some idea what I was going to be when I grew up.
[unintelligible] special characteristics that draw other people to science?
Well, that's a problem that's being actively studied,
or attempts are being made, you might say, to design experiments to test
this point. There's no satisfactory information on this right now.
That's one thing that should be given serious consideration. We just have no idea. Nothing has yet been
done to constitute a satisfactory test for that preference. For technical reasons,
bacteria are very much more convenient than cells of higher organisms.
You can grow bacteria very easily. It takes considerable apparatus and
organization to grow tissue cells in culture. It's more difficult to do.
You said your next work will be on the genetics of tissue cells.
No, I did not. I said that I intended to continue my present program of
study, but I hope also to indulge in this, and in particular at the department
at Stanford I'm hoping that the number of people that we're talking about
coming out there will follow that particular program.
Are you going to Stockholm to accept the award?
I assume so.
When will that be?
Well, I don't have any official information on this point, but when I heard
that this might go on I went to the library to look up what the Nobel awards
were all about, and so forth, I didn't really know a good deal about them except
what I read in newspapers. I might mention there are two very interesting
articles that appeared in the New Yorker last Spring that I remembered, and
that I picked out; I'll recommend them to you if you'd like some rather
colorful background. And then there's a volume which the Nobel Foundation
itself puts out, so from that I had an idea. I understand from them, that the award
ceremonies are to be held on the 10th of December, but I've not made any arrangements
Do you have any reaction to what happened to Boris Pasternak?
Yeah, I have a number; I'm just trying to sort them out. I've been waiting for an
opportunity to read his book; I've heard good things about it. In fact, I ordered
it while I was in London last summer without realizing that it would soon be published
in the States. It was out of print and hadn't arrived, so I haven't seen the book. It seems
to me extraordinary that man can survive in a totalitarian state and still exercise his
critical functions. The man himself seems to be even more extraordinary.
Does that pretty well take care of any questions?
[unintelligible] can you tell us
what the immediate significance of your work is to the scientific world?
Well I think the most important element is that it bring bacteria back into biology.
Historically, bacteriology has tended to be developed as an applied science and as a
medical science, and not from a fundamental biological point of view. Because of this
divergent outlook, there's been a limited connection between general biological studies
in other organisms and similar studies in bacteria, and many people have felt that
bacteria were side issues in the evolution of life on this earth, and not on the
mainstream; were curiosities totally different in their makeup and composition and
behavior. I think the fact (a) that as Beadle and Tatum helped to point out, their
biochemical constitution is so much like that of other cells and (b) as we now know,
that their genetical behavior is so much like that of other cells, if that a large
aspect of life becomes part of the same universe again. I think that from a philosophical
point of view that this is the most important aspect. From a laboratory technical point
of view, bacteria had been made available for genetic investigation that will still have
some relevance to the genetics of other organisms, and as laboratory organisms they are
extremely convenient; much more so for certain types of work than anything else, because
they multiply so rapidly. Tremendous populations can be handled; a test tube the
size of this fountain pen will hold a billion organisms, or 10 billion organisms. That's
more than the total number of people on the earth, you see. And you can deal with these
in a matter of minutes and hours, instead of weeks, months and years. I'd say those
were the two most important features: (1) that we learn more about bacteria than cells
as aspect of life, therefore we learn more about life in general; and (second) that they
make better tools for studying specific problems, including biochemical problems, that
are otherwise not available.
Dr. Lederberg, are you concerned in any way in your research with the effects of
radioactivity on heredity of genes?
I make use of radiation as a means of obtaining mutations and biochemical markers that I have identified in my own work, but
that's the extent of it.
I want to get back to one question that I wanted to clarify: when you were
talking about one of the reasons you were going to Stanford, you said over the
years geneticists have not had the space and the facilities you hope to
have there. Can I extend that to mean you think it's been neglected here in
I think that I'm personally as responsible for this as anyone else.
I haven't taken the energy and time needed to organize the improvement of
facilities in the Department I've had.
There's not a responsibility that goes to the Administration? I mean, we don't
get a Nobel prize winner here every day and then find out that he's leaving.
Well, the work was done here but liking the recognition of the Nobel
prize; that might be an argument about complaining too much about facilities.
But have you read Parkinson's Law about the inverse correlation of elegance
with productivity? I wouldn't want that to be taken too seriously either.
I don't know the full reasons for this. I think that "neglect" is too negative
a word in this respect. I assume that the genetics building programs have had
a relatively low priority but I think there are historical reasons that
the departments go in turn in replacing their facilities, and I just happened
to come in at a time when the circle of fortune in genetics was a long way
off in getting new programs. A bacteriology department here was living under
very much worse circumstances at the time I arrived, and they certainly
merited the improvement in the building they had.
I think you're asking
rather loaded questions, John, in this respect. I wouldn't want the
wrong impression to be created that —
— I'm just concerned about this business of your leaving. What are
you leaving for? Can you do your work better there, or is there another phase
of it that you can do better there?
There's another phase of it, that represents cooperation with a number of
significant individuals who just don't happen to be on this campus. This is
a final consideration.