Gender Discrimination and Bacterial Genetics

Stanley Falkow, emeritus professor of microbiology, candidly addressed the issue of gender discrimination in acedemic medicine.  Four years ago, I started collecting material for the biography of Esther Lederberg. Since then, I have interviewed some of the surviving colleagues who knew her. The second colleague I interviewed was Stanley Falkow. He joined the Department of Microbiology and Immunology as chairman in 1981. I visited him in his office on May 14, 2015.

Here are excerpts of our conversation:

Dr. Stanley Falkow, Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Stanford University.


I had just read Walking out on the Boys by Frances Conley. Dr. Falkow and I discussed the gender discrimination controversy at Stanford University, twenty-five years ago. Conley was the first female tenured professor of neurosurgery in the United States. In 1991, she resigned to protest the medical school’s blatant gender discrimination.

I asked Dr. Falkow about the Conley controversy:

Falkow: “My wife (Lucy Tompkins, professor in Medicine and Microbiology and Immunology, Stanford University) was part of that, she was in the same boat with Fran, and so I remember the exact meeting. She (Fran) went to the dean when they were going to appoint a chairman who had been particularly nasty. And she went to the dean [David Korn, dean of the Medical School] and said, “David don’t do this.” And he did anyway and she quit. I wrote Fran a fan letter. They had a symposium here on Women in Science. It was on a Saturday and there were almost all women present and about five men, including me and a dean, one dean. And they had a round table: Fran and an older woman, Rose Payne, who had also never been promoted, and another older woman and a very young woman. Basically they all told the story (of gender discrimination). Basically the younger woman said that things are not a whole lot better now—my wife also had a terrible time. And the look on Fran’s face, she said, “I went through all of this shit and thought I was making progress (for other women), and I see this young woman and then she went and saw David and she just imploded.  Rose Payne had no tenure for a long time. Rose literally went, in one day, from being a research assistant professor to a full professor with tenure, because it was such an embarrassment. My wife came home one day and she had seen a chart of the salaries in the Department of Medicine and there was a big outlier and it was my wife, the only female tenured professor, and somebody pointed that out and suddenly she got an enormous raise, at about the same time.”

After Joshua and Esther divorced in 1966, Eshter’s career was in jeopardy.

Falkow: “He [Joshua] threw her over for a surgeon (psychiatriast actually) who was prettier and he took off. It was no competition. In a sense Josh evolved socially and Esther did not. She was treated as a technician, and she remained a technician. And Josh was not good about it. In my eulogy when I went out of my way to point that out, much to the chagrin of some of the people in attendance. Esther had no standing. She had no academic standing. She couldn’t have students. I don’t think she had grants of her own. Esther is a party to all of that but the pity was that after her first years of being a very good experimentalist and had the insight to plan experiments, and there are a lot of papers that she’s on where she was a major, major contributor, far more than I think Josh was, in some ways, certainly experimentally, intellectually as well. She never had the chance for her career to really evolve. That’s why people always bring up her name with Martha Chase and Daisy Dussoix, who worked with Werner Arber, women who had a minor role relegated to being technicians, but they were far more than that.”

Epilogue: Stanley Falkow, a much-loved Stanford professor and Medical School teacher died  on May 5, 2018, at his home in Portola Valley, Calif. He was 84.


Lynn Wallace was a graduate student in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology from 1974-77. Her graduate advisor was Bruce Stocker, but she considered Esther Lederberg her unofficial mentor. She recalled the sexist conditions at Stanford University in those days:

Wallace: “When I was at Stanford, people who got scientific degrees and had done well went into post-doctoral positions and tried to access the “system,” get the backing of influential people and thus get a permanent position.  At this time, pressures were acute and the environment was very competitive due to the baby boomers, the number of Ph.D.s due to the Vietnam War where many would rather get an advance degree etc.  It could take 10 years to find out if one was going to be one who got the tenured position or not.

Needless to say, the situation for women was even more dire than for men.  There was not much in the way of serious affirmative action.  In fact, just the opposite.  The medical school had a quota of something like 10 -15% for women students.  The thinking was that women would get married, have kids and then “waste” their education.  I had seen the fate of a few women Ph.D.s in science at Berkeley who had to be basically technicians and “lab moms”  in their husband’s labs.  I knew that I wanted my own position independently obtained and wanted to get paid for my work ( a novel concept)  instead of just attributions on other people’s paper for excellent technical help or something similar.  The consequences of not getting a secure position were to drift around as a virtual nomad in temporary positions.

I also wanted eventually to have children.  I had several conversations with Esther about this.  Her advice  was to recount some of what she saw as her own mistakes in not taking building her career seriously, thinking that she and Joshua would always be a team.  So I took at that time the step, which is very common now, of going to the career placement center at Stanford.  I told them what I was studying and that I wanted a real job, not a post doc.  They tried to discourage me and told me that if I ever went to industry, I would never be welcome back in the academic club.  Stanford at the time was making big bucks from some of their intellectual property such as the MOOG synthesizer (music department brought in the most money)  recombinant technology etc. by staying in academia, one could still be financially successful.  I persisted and eventually went to industry when I finished my research.  Esther told me I had done the right thing, that basically the work might not be as exciting, but one could not do anything without support and funding.  I told her when I saw her later while working on the AIDS tests that she had been right and that had been the right choice for me even though sexual discrimination was not unknown in industry. When one got results, one could get paid!  This has changed and many actively start companies and go back and forth between industry and academia pretty freely.”

Dr. Wallace recalled Esther Lederberg:

“In terms of Esther as she told the story, about the time she got married, she was very much in love and thinking about sex.  One day she wondered while working in the lab if bacteria had sex.  That sparked her worked trying to find out if they did using E.Coli K-12 as a model.  She eventually showed this to be true and discovered the F factor.

This is often credited to Joshua.  If you look at his work, he was working in the general area before he began working with Esther but had LITTLE success until the two of them teamed up. Still the sense among some (except I think those who knew them both well) that he was the brains and she was the hands.  I do not believe this to be true.  I think she worked with both Beadle and Tatum who were the absolute giants in the field of molecular genetics and the beginnings of modern molecular biology.  They would never have taken her as a student if they were not convinced of her talents.  I think she and Joshua probably worked well together and there was synergy, but she definitely had really high-order scientific insight.  She was not just good in the lab and designed good experiments.  She knew what questions to ask, how to understand the implications of her results and where to go next.

BUT she was all about the work.  The work was the thing and she told me she had not been interested at that time in establishing her own career in the sense of making choices that would help her secure her own positions.  She was young, she was in love, she was working with someone she loved and the work  went well.  In addition, she knew everyone who was anyone in the field.  it was a heady and exciting time for her.  I think that Joshua was much more into the issues of career building.  I think Esther had a good sense of the importance of this time and all that was happening.
All of this is to explain why  Esther did not look out for her personal career issues and it didn’t seem that Joshua did either (demanding a real position for her when offered prestigious jobs).  She would later regret this, but always had a generous spirit and shared her work and her strains.”

“Esther always had a quality of “the emperor has no clothes”  honesty.  She often spoke in a somewhat stream of consciousness rambling way, and just as soon as you would begin to wonder where this was all going, you would understand her point.  She always had a point. She was a great conversationalist and story teller.

She knew a great deal about many things.  Her love, when I knew her, was the recorder, and she went to groups to play.  She also went to French movies, which were shown on campus.  Her house was a Japanese style house with a center courtyard where her cat played and climbed the tree and she could see him from every window.  She had Scandinavian modern furniture and Rya rugs pretty standard faculty decor at the time.  She was charitable concerning her opinion of people and other scientists, but she also said what she thought about the quality of work often in a somewhat offhand way.  I think she had total integrity concerning her work which was always the thing.  She freely admitted what she saw as mistakes.  She was not in anyway arrogant.  I think she knew some French.  I always amused by the French expression that plasmids were “chez microbe”  at the house of the bacteria.”



Leave a Reply