Scientist Spotlight: Esther Lederberg

It’s an unfortunate scenario in the history of science that many of the famous male scientists had equally intelligent female counterparts in their wives, though these women may not have been as well-known as their husbands. Such is the case for Esther Lederbeg, she was a pioneer in bacterial genetics, but her husband won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Esther attended Hunter College on a scholarship initially to study French or literature. She changed her major to biochemistry, however, despite a professor urging her that it was a challenge for a woman to find work in that field. At 24, Esther was awarded a fellowship to receive her Masters from Stanford University. Sometimes Esther did not have enough money for food and resorted to eating frog legs left over from laboratory dissections.

Esther did a lot of work and research on bacteria. She studied bacteria genetics in an attempt to increase the yield of penicillin, and assisted George Beadle and Edward Tatum in the discovery of the role of genes in regulating biochemical events in the cell, work that won them a Nobel Prize. Esther also worked with her husband to investigate why bacteria become resistant to drugs they were previously allergic to.

Because she was a woman, Esther struggled to receive an appropriate and lasting academic position. She constantly was assigned untenured or low-paying jobs while her husband was made head of genetics or another high position. Even when Stanford changed her title to Adjunct Professor, Esther was still not tenured and had her contract renewed on a rolling basis.

Esther did not allow academic woes to stop her, however, and she discovered the lambda phage while she was completing her doctorate. The lambda phage is currently a key part of molecular biology because of its behavior with bacteria. Esther also invented the replica plating technique which allowed scientists to replicate bacteria colonies.

Esther and her husband were awarded the Pasteur Award in “Recognition of the contribution to microbiology, particularly for their fundamental studies in bacterial genetics.” Though her name was not on the award, Esther was also essential in her husband’s research that led to his Nobel Prize.

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