Esther Lederberg: A Forgotten Woman in STEM

A lot of women have been overlooked when it comes to their contributions to STEM, their achievements, and some of their achievements have been attributed to men that were their colleagues and partners. Isn’t that just horrible? It would really suck to know that something that I, as a woman, if I were a woman, accomplished and it was discredited to me and credited to someone else or even stolen from me intellectually. I could not even imagine that, but it is a widely recognized problem in history for women in STEM (and in general). Even the White House recognizes the issue in an official site entitled, “The Untold History of Women in Science and Technology.” It is so disheartening that history has disregarded women and their accomplishments. In this blog, I am going to tell the story of one of the many other women in STEM that were not credited and forgotten in history: Esther Lederberg.

According to multiple sources, Esther Lederberg is known as a “pioneer of bacterial genetics.” She achieved this during her work as an unpaid research assistant to her husband at the University of Wisconsin, according to a source. According to that same source, “She discovered the lambda phage, a bacterial virus which is widely used as a tool to study gene regulation and genetic recombination. She also invented the replica plating technique, which is used to isolate and analyse [sic] bacterial mutants and track antibiotic resistance.” Many sources credit this to her solely, but other sources, including Stanford, seem to give most of the credit to her husband.

Joshua and Esther Lederberg at the University of Wisconsin in 1958.
Joshua and Esther Lederberg at the University of Wisconsin in 1958. Source: The New York Times and Associated Press

According to her memorial page from Stanford, where she was professor emeritus of microbiology and immunology, “Lederberg is perhaps best known for her collaboration with her first husband, Joshua Lederberg, PhD, who in 1958 won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for discoveries on how bacteria mate. But her work was extremely noteworthy in its own right, and she was a trailblazer for women scientists at Stanford and at large.” In this, Stanford gives the credit to her husband, Joshua, saying that she is “best known for her collaboration” with him, but at least they gave her the credit for being a “trailblazer.” This is their way of demoting her accomplishments just because she is a woman, in my opinion. It is surprising to me that the institution still chooses to give her the least credit in her accomplishments in this article posted in 2006. According to a different source, “Her tenure was even revoked by Stanford after being demoted to Adjunct Professor of Medical Microbiology. Joshua, on the other hand, was appointed to be the founder and chairman of the Department of Genetics.” That is really unfair but that is just how it was for her. She was just completely overshadowed by her husband in their professional careers and accomplishments.

Esther Lederberg in the lab at Stanford University
Esther Lederberg in the lab at Stanford University Source

According to one source, a fellow colleague at Stanford,  Stanley Falkow, a retired microbiologist said in an email that, “She deserved credit for the discovery of lambda phage, her work on the F fertility factor, and, especially, replica plating.” Also, according to Falkow, in reference to her treatment by and at Stanford, “She had to fight just to be appointed as a research associate professor, whereas she surely should have been afforded full professorial rank. She was not alone. Women were treated badly in academia in those days.” This confirms my speculations earlier about how Stanford was demoting her just because she was a woman.

Esther Lederberg gives a lecture in Japan in 1962.
Esther Lederberg gives a lecture in Japan in 1962. Source: Stanford, photo courtesy of Matthew Simon

According to her memorial page at Stanford, her colleagues at Stanford, Stanley Falkow, PhD, the Robert W. and Vivian K. Cahill Professor in Cancer Research, “Experimentally and methodologically she was a genius in the lab.”

According to a source, Lederberg “retired from Stanford University in 1985 as one of the first female professors in the microbiology and immunology department. She had earned her masters [sic] degree in genetics there in 1946 and received a PhD from the University of Wisconsin in 1950.”

In addition to her passion of science, she loved music. According to a source, “She founded the Mid-Peninsula Recorder Orchestra in 1962, which still draws amateur musicians in the area to play compositions from the 13th century to the present.” She is said to have always wanted to play the flute, but she loved the recorder, according to an article quoting an interview with Lederberg and the San Francisco Chronicle.

As we can see, Esther Lederberg definitely made some impressive accomplishments in the STEM field. Her achievements in the field were snubbed from her due to being under the wing of her husband who took credit as the leader of the research. Also, she was demoted by Stanford in many ways most likely just because she was a woman. Thankfully her story is out there and she is getting the credit that she deserves.

Have you ever considered how women have been forgotten in STEM? It is definitely something to think about and consider. I would love to hear what you have to say about this topic in the comment section below. I value your feedback and am interested to know about some other women that were forgotten in history or just in general. Check out my about page and my contact page. I hope you enjoyed this blog as much as I did.

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