Genetics Research in the 1960s: Lee Herzenberg Recalls Esther Lederberg

The first faculty member Joshua Lederberg recruited to join the new Department of Genetics at Stanford University was Leonard Herzenberg. He move from the NIH to Stanford in 1959. He and his wife, Lee, worked separately and together at Stanford for over 50 years.

1995 Bacillus Conference. Front Row: Len Herzenberg,, Lee Herzenberg, Esther Lederberg, Charlie Yanofsky Back Row: Charlie Stewart, Charles Laird, Dale Kaiser. Noice that Ester, as always at conferences, is holding a camera. She was “the Boswell of bacterial genetics.”

I visited Lee Herzenberg’s cluttered basement office at Stanford, with its dog-door retaining her little terrier, on December 6, 2016. Dr. Herzenberg looked like an ex-hippie, seated on the floor at a knee-height desk. She took calls and spoke with members of her lab, who stuck their heads in to greet her and mention fragments of business/social meetings, or to update her on research. The walls and shelves of Herzenberg’s office were decorated with with artsy mementos and photos. On one wall hung a huge painted glass piece, illustrating a sun-like golden ovum ringed with radiating blue spermatozoa, original art by one of her daughters—she has four children. In the course of our interview she mentioned another (or the same?) daughter who has her own jazz recording company.

Lee Herzenberg recalled Esther Lederberg, a colleague of hers at Stanford for over forty years:

Herzenberg: “There was no question about her [Esther’s] scientific brilliance, and Josh never detracted from her. She had brought Josh into the world, in the sense that she led Josh into bacterial genetics, she was older—I believe than he—much more experienced in terms of the lab, he was never a hands on scientist, anyway he was theoretical.

She was the ground from which Josh’s brilliance grew, she brought him the facts . . . but Josh was such an amazing character, absolutely amazing, in terms of intelligence there was nothing like him. Living next to him must have been very hard for Esther

She was very much a part of Josh’s academic life. She was somewhat socially awkward. She was living in a time when wives were arm candy, not colleagues. Women here (Stanford) were not on the faculty.

[Two exceptions were] Rose Payne and Judy Poole. Rose and Judy were the two women widely recognized as independent scientists. [Other women] Mainly were seen as the appendage of their husband; if their husband allowed them to work in the lab—Len supported me working in his lab—Josh supported Esther working in the lab, but if the husband was not supportive, they could not get an independent position, they just didn’t come at that time.

Esther was probably invited to speak at the meetings, CHS, but very often we weren’t. Esther was much more independent of Josh than I was of Len because we worked on the same thing. Esther kept up the bacterial genetics part of the laboratory and Ann [Ganesan] is the person who knows most about that, she and Gan were basically Josh’s students but they were ones that Esther interacted with. But there were no easy ways at that time for women to get on the faculty. With Josh she was a full partner in his bacterial genetics life, but that came to be less and less [after her won the Nobel Prize in 1958], he was so eclectic and brilliant.”

AT+Ann Ganesan
A. T. and Ann Ganesan

“I think that one of the reasons that Josh left Esther was that he wanted a child very badly. He did have a child with Marguerite. He was very awkward around children; it was obvious that he was very jealous of people that had children. Whether Esther couldn’t or wouldn’t have a child I don’t know.”

After the Lederbergs moved to Stanford University from Wisconsin in 1959, Joshua and Esther grew apart. The Nobel Prize star-power allowed Joshua to pursue other interests, such as computer-programming and astrobiology. Esther continued her research in bacterial genetics, but only at the level of untenured research associate. Joshua left Stanford in 1978 to become the president of Rockefeller University. Esther remained at Stanford University for the rest of her life, founding and directing the Stanford Plasmid Reference Center (PRC) from 1976. She continued to maintain the PRC for nearly twenty years.

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