Esther Lederberg (1922-2006)
Bronx, New York, USA
Digital Illustration, 24" x 32", 2022
Esther Lederberg was a microbiologist who changed the world of bacterial genetics. She was the first scientist to isolate λ bacteriophage, a virus that replicates and infects within bacteria and archaea.
Shortly after following her husband Joshua to his teaching job at University of Wisconsin, Lederberg began her doctorate degree and worked as her husband’s unpaid researcher. While there, she discovered lambda phage, a bacterial virus that infects bacterial species. She and her husband studied how bacteria adapt and become resistant to a specific drug, one they were previously affected by. By looking at how the chromosomes behaved, they could find and track the first mutant change. Joshua, George W. Beadle and Edward Tatum would win the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine in 1958 for this development of replica plating. There was no mention of Esther.
Although she was an outstanding scientist, Lederberg had trouble obtaining a working position as a woman. She would remain Joshua’s research assistant even though she was overqualified for the position. She was never recognized for her discovery of irregular patterns in a culture of bacterial colonies of E coli mediated by Fertility Factor F. Her findings would go on to change molecular biology, but many laboratories saw her as a wife and assistant and not an independent scientist, thus excluding her from many research opportunities.