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In the middle of the last century, a bacterial geneticist in Wisconsin developed a near obsessive interest in velvet. “Like many wives,” wrote a local paper with a jocular wink, Esther Lederberg ordered bolts of the thick-pile fabric, and was particular about the provenance of the product.
But unlike “many wives,” Dr. Lederberg had recently discovered a new experimental technique that would push the study of microbiology into new territory, ushering in an exceptionally productive period for molecular genetics.
Bent over clusters of E.coli cells in her University of Wisconsin lab, Dr. Lederberg discovered that the dense bristles of velvet could be used like tiny needles to capture and blot, in the same spatial orientation, a bacterial colony from one petri dish to another.
Soon she was hunting down yards of the lushest velvet on the market, determining which detergents best suited the textile and which manufacturers treated their product with chemicals that could lead to a confounding variable. Replica plating—a fundamental lab technique now used by high-school biology students and federally funded genetics researchers alike—was born.
Around the time Esther was developing her “homely methodology,” as a fellow researcher would call it, she discovered some odd-shaped bacteria in a petri dish one morning. Her analysis, advanced despite doubts from contemporaries, revealed a previously unknown virus that can lie dormant in bacterial cells and be passed on to subsequent generations. The lambda phage, as Lederberg’s named it, would become a key tool in early genetics research and, later, in genetic engineering.
The procedural breakthrough of replica plating and discovery of lambda phage, however, would be overshadowed in the press and scientific community by further discoveries attributed solely her her husband. His work on the transmission of genetic material between bacteria, much of which relied upon Esther’s discoveries, would earn him a Nobel Prize in 1958, millions of dollars of funding to study microbes on Mars, and ultimately the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award. Esther Lederberg, however, would have to fight for an untenured research position at Stanford, where her work would by and large be swept into the cobwebbed periphery of popular scientific discourse.
Born in 1922, Esther Zimmer grew up smack in the middle of the Great Depression. Lunch in the Lederberg household was more often than not a piece of bread with tomato juice squeezed on top, according to a biographical website maintained by Esther’s second husband, Matthew Simon.
After graduating cum laude from Hunter College in 1942, she took the train across the country to Palo Alto, California to study the emerging field of genetics at Stanford. Money was uncomfortably tight. She washed clothes to earn her board and once even treated herself to a dinner of frog’s legs after a student dissection.
It was while completing her M.A. at Stanford in 1946 that a young microbiologist named Joshua Lederberg wooed her with a discussion about mold, which she had been studying. “I hoped that you might find it convenient to meet me and discuss some of the work,” he solicited. Five months later, they were married.
At just 22, Joshua Lederberg was offered an assistant professorship at the University of Wisconsin in 1947 and the young couple settled down. Esther received a Public Health Service Fellowship for her Ph.D, which she completed in 1950.
In the next decade, the Lederbergs would become a power couple in the field of genetics research. Over the course of their 20-year marriage, they would publish twelve papers together, many focusing on genetic heredity in bacteria. These were the golden years: Esther’s discovery of the lambda phage, which can worm its way into the chromosomes of cells, provided genetics researchers with the perfect template to study the characteristics of mutated bacteria. Her replica plating technique, as simple as a stamp, saved thousands of man hours that had previously been spent copying bacteria colonies for analysis.
Building on these discoveries as the chair of Department of Medical Genetics at the University of Wisconsin, Joshua Lederberg and a colleague, Edward Tatum, discovered how bacteria reproduce. They shared the Nobel Prize in 1958.
The following year, Joshua accepted a position as the head of the department of genetics at Stanford. Esther found herself once again in Palo Alto, this time with more creature comforts but few professional resources. Despite her significant discoveries, Esther was hired only as a “senior scientist” at Stanford, an untenured post. She continued to conduct research on bacterial genetics over the coming years as Joshua, capitalizing on Nobel renown, transitioned toward studying high-profile and highly funded projects ranging from the Viking space mission to artificial intelligence. The couple divorced in 1966.
In a 1970 letter addressed to Prof. J. Lederberg, Esther requested that her ex-husband return a number of her correspondences with famous scientists. He refused stating he had given them to Stanford as an unconditional gift, and discouraged a “fishing expedition” on her part.
Esther Lederberg stayed at Stanford where she established and directed the Plasmid Reference Center. Still untenured, she was the collector, cataloguer and curator of a library of plasmids — DNA fragments that can replicate outside of the normal chromosomal splitting process.
Even late in her career as a widely published scientist, Esther Lederberg faced blatant gender discrimination. At scientific conferences, shopping outings were often organized for the overwhelmingly female spouses of the male participants, and Esther was sometimes mistakenly invited to join.
In a letter of support written in favor of her tenure, a male colleague of more than 20 years snarled that she “merits promotion according to the normal customs of your department (i.e. that your Committee on Women’s Promotions should recommend advancement on the time schedule as a Committee on Men’s Promotions would advance a male scientist).”
While she never received tenure, she remained the much-beloved director and custodian of the Plasmid Reference Center until 1986, helping facilitate DNA research for geneticists around the globe. “Esther rarely complained about her difficulties of not being recognized for her contributions that led to a Nobel Prize for her male colleagues. She took those lemons and made lemonade,” wrote a former student upon her passing.
Following his Nobel prize, Joshua Lederberg planted himself firmly in the public eye writing science columns for newspapers and advising U.S. presidents on everything from cancer to Gulf War syndrome.
An interview from 1986, the year she retired, however, suggests that Esther may not have actually craved the Nobel recognition her husband achieved. “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.”
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