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NASA Advisor on the Search for Life Receives Medal of Freedom
12.15.06
 
1999 portrait of Dr. Joshua Lederberg Dr. Joshua Lederberg, a Nobel-winning microbiolgist whose advice helped create NASA's early biology programs, today received the Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor.

Image left: Dr. Joshua Lederberg. Image credit: National Library of Medicine.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, recognizes exceptional meritorious service. The medal was established by President Truman in 1945 to recognize notable service in the war. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy reintroduced it as an honor for distinguished civilian service in peacetime.

Per Executive Order 11085, the Medal may be presented "to any person who has made an especially meritorious contribution to (1) the security or national interests of the United States, or (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors." This year's recipients include legendary blues guitarist B.B. King and historian David McCullough.

Dr. Lederberg was consulted frequently by NASA during the development of the Viking mission, which carried experiments designed to determine whether life could exist on Mars.

Lederberg became interested in exobiology -- the study of life beyond Earth -- in the 1950s, as interest in exploring space began to build in the United States and other countries. He was one of the first scientists to express concern that spacecraft from Earth might carry microbes that could contaminate the moon or other landing sites. He co-chaired the 1964 Summer Study, sponsored by NASA and the Space Studies Board of the National Academy of Science, which outlined the rationale for searching for life on Mars and started to make the search for life beyond Earth intellectually respectable.

"Joshua Lederberg was one of the guiding lights behind the Viking search for life on Mars and a very close friend and trusted adviser to Jerry Soffen, Viking project scientist," said Langley Research Center senior research scientist Dr. Joel S. Levine. "Lederberg visited Langley often and was influential in promoting the importance of searching for life outside Earth -- even before that concept was fashionable."

During the ceremony honoring the 2006 Medal of Freedom recipients, President George W. Bush said, "Joshua Lederberg has always seemed ahead of his time. He was researching genetics when the field was scarcely understood. He was studying the implications of space travel before there were astronauts. And even three decades ago, he was warning of the dangers of biological warfare. All of his life, people have seen something special in this rabbi's son from Montclair, New Jersey ... For his brilliant career, his high ethical standards and his many contributions to our country, the United States thanks Dr. Joshua Lederberg."

zLederberg has remained active with NASA. In 2000, Baruch Blumberg, then the director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute and a Nobel Laureate himself, included Lederberg on his "Director's Science Council," which consisted of 10 members, most of which were Nobel Laureates with expertise ranging from physics to molecular biology. Dr. Lederberg continues to be affiliated with institute activities and recently served as a reviewer for the joint NAI-American Philosophical Society "Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology."

Lederberg was born in Montclair, N.J. on May 23,1925. He attended schools in New York City; in 1944, he obtained his B.A. with honors in Zoology. From 1944 to 1946, he attended the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University Medical School. Subsequently, he went to the Department of Microbiology and Botany at Yale University, New Haven, Conn., as Research Fellow of the Jane Coffin Childs Fund for Medical Research and, during 1946-1947, as a graduate student with Professor E.L. Tatum. He was awarded a doctorate in 1948.

He became a professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin, where he organized the Department of Medical Genetics in 1957. He was department chairman during 1957-1958.

Undated photo of Dr. Joshua Lederberg at the Kennedy Space Center.

Image above: Dr. Joshua Lederberg at the Kennedy Space Center in an undated photo. Image credit: National Library of Medicine.

He organized the Stanford University Medical School's Department of Genetics, which appointed him professor and executive head in 1959. Since 1962, he has been Director of the Kennedy Laboratories for Molecular Medicine at Stanford.

Lederberg was a Fulbright Visiting Professor of Bacteriology at Melbourne University, Australia, in 1957. In the same year, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

+ Read more about Dr. Lederberg and NASA's early efforts in exobiology and the Viking program in the NASA publication "On Mars: Exploration of the Red Planet, 1958-1978."

+ Read the White House press release on all the Medal of Freedom recipients.