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NASA Advisor on the Search for Life to Receive Medal of Freedom
NASA Advisor on the Search for Life to Receive Medal of Freedom
8 Dec 2006
(Source: NASA Headquarters)

Dr. Joshua Lederberg, a Nobel-winning microbiolgist whose advice helped create NASA's early biology programs, will receive the Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor.

Dr. Lederberg became interested in exobiology -- the study of life beyond Earth -- in the 1950s, as interest in exploring space began to build in the United States and other countries. He was one of the first scientists to express concern that spacecraft from Earth might carry microbes that could contaminate the moon or other landing sites. He co-chaired the 1964 Summer Study, sponsored by NASA and the Space Studies Board of the National Academy of Science, which outlined the rationale for searching for life on Mars and started to make the search for life beyond Earth intellectually respectable.

He was consulted frequently by NASA during the development of the Viking mission, which carried experiments designed to determine whether life could exist on Mars.

Lederberg was born in Montclair, N.J. on May 23,1925. He was brought up in the Washington Heights District of Upper Manhattan, New York City, where he received his education in Public School 46, Junior High School 164 and Stuyvesant High School. From 1941 to 1944 he studied at Columbia College, where he obtained his B.A. with honors in Zoology (premedical course), and from 1944 to 1946 at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University Medical School. Here he carried out part-time research with Professor F.J. Ryan in the Department of Zoology. Subsequently, he went to the Department of Microbiology and Botany at Yale University, New Haven, Conn., as Research Fellow of the Jane Coffin Childs Fund for Medical Research and, during 1946-1947, as a graduate student with Professor E.L. Tatum. He was awarded a doctorate in 1948.

In 1947, he was appointed assistant professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin, where he was promoted to associate professor in 1950 and professor in 1954. He organized the Department of Medical Genetics in 1957, of which he was chairman during 1957-1958.

He organized the Stanford University Medical School's Department of Genetics, which appointed him professor and executive head in 1959. Since 1962, he has been Director of the Kennedy Laboratories for Molecular Medicine at Stanford.

Lederberg was Visiting Professor of Bacteriology at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1950; and Fulbright Visiting Professor of Bacteriology at Melbourne University, Australia, in 1957. In the latter year, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

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Last Updated: 8 Dec 2006