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The Joshua Lederberg Papers

Letter from Harriett Ephrussi-Taylor to Joshua Lederberg Annotation pdf (289,680 Bytes) transcript of pdf
Letter from Harriett Ephrussi-Taylor to Joshua Lederberg
Item is handwritten.
Number of Image Pages:
4 (289,680 Bytes)
1953-09-03 (September 3, 1953)
Ephrussi-Taylor, Harriett
Lederberg, Joshua
Reproduced with permission of Anne Ephrussi.
Lederberg Grouping: Correspondence C
Box Number: 10
Folder Number: 43
Unique Identifier:
Accession Number:
Document Type:
Letters (correspondence)
Physical Condition:
Series: Correspondence, 1935-2002
SubSeries: 1953-1960
Folder: Ephrussi-Taylor, Harriett
September 3, 1953
Dear Joshua,
We have just returned from the Genetics Congress at Bellagio, where your absence was felt on a number of occasions. We would have welcomed a chance to talk with you and find out in more detail what you are busy with these days. Your letter last winter gave us a vague notion, and we hear indirectly, of course, from various itinerant scientists, but nothing can supplant discussion. A few people voiced the opinion that you are desirous of avoiding contact with microbial geneticists -- an opinion which I find gratuitous. After all, anyone should be able to abstain from a congress without provoking speculation, especially since there are so many meetings and they are really often more tiring than profitable.
I presume the speculations have arrisen [sic] because everyone is aware that an interpretation of sexual recombination in E. coli has been prepared which differs from your own. Certain people may be desirous of a confrontation of opinions, of which
yours would necessarily be the most authoritative. I am inclined to believe that such a confrontation would not be especially profitable, and, in particular, because of a lack of decisive experiments to eliminate one or another interpretation, that such a confrontation would be apt to be more partisan than scientific. Consequently, if there is any basis to the contention that you are abstaining from meetings to avoid "battle", it has my entire sympathy and comprehension. Doubtless there rumors filter back to you, and I hope that you understand that they arise only because of the importance of your contribution to genetics. It is because we have very genuine admiration of the work of your laboratory, and feelings of friendliness toward you and Esther, that I feel like trying to establish a contact with you which will be purged of a certain murkiness which rumors inevitably create. You are very much talked about, you know, because you have made such a strong contribution. But it really doesn't change the "fact" that the people who feel friendly toward you remain that way, and those who don't, stay malicious.
Of course, I have a second reason for writing you--bad conscience. It is possible that the "Note on Terminology" in Nature may have made you feel that the people who wrote it are hostile to you. I should like to reassure you
that this is not at all the case. It was a simple outburst of humor at the trend in all of us to create new terms for our pet processes. You are certainly no more culpable in this respect than anyone. It just happened that the joke would crystallize a little more readily. Having crystallized, it then became tantalizing to see if a serious journal, such as "Nature", would slip so badly as to publish it. I must admit that when it came out, it had lost all its favour[?] for us, and we rather regretted it, fearing that it might make you feel more isolated from us. I do hope you will accept our apologies, laugh with us, and treasure an autographed copy.
As for work, both Boris and I have had a very active year. In my own case, I undertook the investigation of several problems, and only one is in a more or less terminal phase. With Fatryit[?], and Watson I worked out the x ray sensitivity of Rollin's Streptomycin resistance TP, (it being capable of quantitative treatment), and found the subject complicated but interesting. In a word, it looks as though TP has the sensitive [volume about equal to that of a small phage -- which is what the very poor[?] papers of Fluke, Drew, and Pollard claimed. I feel, therefore, that it is likely that we shall find linkage groups in TP's, and that my allogenic [sic] transformations can be pictured as some kind of cross over between pseudoalleles. I do not believe, however, that TP's are
phages, but hope to have some very clear experiments on this point before very long. This coming year may bring very major advances in the chemistry of TP's, and on their physical properties.
Boris, working with Roman, and Helene Hottinguer, have discovered that "petites" are of two sorts: "neutral" and "suppressive." As luck would have it, all the early work was with neutrals, for otherwise they never would have unravelled the story. Neutrals, in a cross with normal "grandes", behave in an entirely passive way: cytochrome synthesis is restored in the diploid, essentially at the moment of copulation, and all progeny are normal. Suppressives, on the contrary, when crossed with "grandes" suppress cytochrome synthesis in almost 100% of the diploids arrising [sic] from copulations. All spore progeny from these "suppressed" diploids are mutant. The suppressive character arises simultaneously with the mutation of grande to petite, and there is thus a real possibility that they are dealing with a competitive cytoplasmic particle. On the other hand, there is an at least superficial resemblance between this change, and the conversion of prophage into phage. It is going to most interesting to see where they go from here in the work.
I must get to work now -- Boris joins me in sending you both our very kindest regards--
I entirely subscribe to the feelings expressed in this letter, and send both of you my regards. Boris
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Annotation by Joshua Lederberg:
KW: in part, an explanation of:

171 (4355): 701-701 1953;
Harriett was concerned I might be offended.  Hardly:
it just seemed rather silly, and here Harriett says
it was;
See also BBAJML;


jl 4/19/04