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The Joshua Lederberg Papers

[Joshua Lederberg receives the 1999 Morris F. Collen Award] transcript of audio
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Videotape was shown when the American College of Medical Informatics presented Dr. Lederberg with the 1999 Morris F. Collen award for life time contributions to biomedicine, science and medical informatics.
Running Time:
15 minutes, 49 seconds
American College of Medical Informatics
Betacam SP Metal Tape (Fuji M321SP 30 M)
Exhibit Category:
Biographical Information
Lederberg Grouping: No Epoch
Unique Identifier:
Document Type:
Video recordings
Series: Audio-Visual
Folder: Videotapes
The college is proud to announce that the 1999 recipient of the Collen Award is Dr. Joshua Lederberg, biologist, geneticist, computer scientist, and schola. Dr. Lederberg's lifelong contributions to biomedicine and science, as well as to medical informatics make him highly deserving of the recognition embodied in the Collen Award.
Joshua Lederberg was born in Montclair, New Jersey, on May 23, 1925, the son of a rabbi. His interest in a scientific career was mentioned in an essay that he wrote at the age of seven. His family moved to New York City when Lederberg was a child, and he was able to attend Stuyvesant High School, which concentrated in the sciences. Upon graduating from high school at 16, Lederberg took advantage of a local scholarship to attend Columbia University. And subsequently began medical school there. After his experiments with Edward L.Tatum, that demonstrated sexual recombination in bacteria, Lederberg decided to leave medical school to pursue a Ph.D., which he received from Yale in 1948 at the age of 23. He then joined the genetics department at the University of Wisconsin. In 1958 when he was but 33 years old, Joshua Lederberg received a telegram of the sort that only a handful of scientists every receive. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discoveries concerning genetic recombination and the organization of the genetic material of bacteria. He shared the prize with George W. Beadle and Edward L. Tatum. The work that lead to Lederberg's Nobel began in 1945 when he was 20, and still a medical student. Lederberg's work, which formed the basis for his Ph.D. dissertation demonstrated that bacteria can, in fact, reproduce through sexual recombination, and opened up the genetics of micro-organisms to the traditional methods of the field.
Lederberg is known not only for his demonstration of bacterial conjugation, but also for his discovery of transduction and for coining the term plasmid. The Nobel Prize gave him a reputation among the general public that allowed him to pursue his interests at the intersection of science, policy and society. Between 1966 and 1971, he wrote a series of over 200 articles for the Washington Post, which converted into lay terms many of the pressing scientific issues of the day. Typical articles included themes such as "Russian computers are having delusions or are they?" and the premonitory "Congress should examine biological warfare tests", a topic which continues to draw his interest and involvement at the national level to this day.
Josh has had a long interest in formalizing the intellectual processes of scientific investigation and discovery. But on coming to Stanford in 1959 to found the Stanford Department of Genetics his study of informatics took on new dimensions. He took classes in programming and began a series of systematic investigations of using computers in biomedicine. By the mid-1960s, Josh was working on ways to systematize the enumeration of chemical structures. This early work would find expression later on in the DENDRAL project.
[Donald A. B. Lindberg:] It's hard to remember when I really first met Josh, but I can remember vividly the first serious conversation I ever had with him. It was 1964. It was my first meeting as a Markel Scholar. The group was in the Ahwanee Lodge at Yosemite, and the speakers had been Jacob Bronowski, Lee Dubridge, and Josh Lederberg. And I remember seeing Josh in the sun at a coffee break, sitting alone at a table, sort of lost in thought, and I decided that he probably wouldn't mind being interrupted, and so I asked him what was he thinking about -- seemed like not too impertinent a question -- although it probably was -- and he said he was thinking about this: If he had a chemical molecule in his mind, and he could see it clearly, what would be the next one that logically should be considered? That struck me as kind of an amazing thing to be thinking about.
The post-Sputnik start of the US space program in earnest -- one of Lederberg's new areas of attention was the exploration of outer space in search of life forms. He coined the term "exobiology" to describe this new field dealing with the search for the origins of life. He invented new ways to represent information about molecular structures, such as proteins, in the computer, so they could be analyzed and compared. The 1964 printout shown here may be the first time that a protein sequence was stored in a computer for analysis.
[Edward Feigenbaum:] In 1964 when I first met Josh, he was writing his first large-scale computer program in the dialect of ALGOL. The program was called DENDRAL for dendridic algorithm but the reference to dendrites was metaphoric. Josh was creating a complete system for the enumeration of acyclic chemical structures. When I arrived at Stanford in January of 1965, I discussed with Josh my goal of creating models of the thinking processes of scientists, especially the processes of empirical induction with which hypotheses and theories were inferred from data. Josh, suggested a task of inferring organic chemical structures from mass spectral data and enthusiastically entered into a collaboration. My sketch of Lederberg and DENDRAL is necessarily brief and leaves out so much of his tangible contributions to our work in artificial intelligence and its applications. And it leaves out almost all of his intangible contributions, the texture if you will of the day to day interactions with Josh. These interactions were full of wisdom and guidance on how to run substantial interdisciplinary projects of the kind we were doing in expert systems, insights on the nature of knowledge and cognitive processes in science, and creative ideas for getting us over today's hurdle and tomorrow's hill. In truth, a flood of creative ideas. If we had had the energy and resources we could have probably done ten other projects with these ideas. Working with Josh on our common problems in modeling expert thought in science and biomedicine gave me the privileged opportunity to witness a great intellect at work, applying superb analytic thinking skills with the enthusiasm of a young hacker for how much fun it was to program a computer to do these things. And it was not only fun, but it was important in the history of computer science.
The DENDRAL collaboration lead Josh to devote a great part of his energies to computer science, including the underlying languages and tools necessary to express his ideas about molecular biology and genetics.
[Lindberg:] Walking across the lovely campus at Stanford with him following a morning in which I don't remember the real circumstances but a whole lot of very nice research was reported at Stanford -- I must confess while I liked it all, I was sick and tired of hearing about LISP and list-processing languages. So as we hiked off to the commissary or wherever the faculty club or wherever we ate, I said to Josh, what would happen if some malignant deity all of a sudden destroyed, eliminated LISP there isn't any more LISP. What would you do? He said, I guess, Don, I would take Fortran and write LISP.
Lederberg insisted on participating first-hand in the development, testing, and use of the computing systems that fascinated him, no matter how cumbersome the early human computer interfaces were.
[Carl Djerassi:] So we got together with Ed Feigenbaum, who had been working on artificial intelligence in general, to see what we could apply to chemistry, in particular the structural elucidation of organic compounds, which was precisely my area. And then they came to me and said, look, can we just simply try and simulate in a computer how Carl Djerassi thinks? And that was really the beginning of a very fruitful collaboration for well over a dozen years in which a lot of other people were involved Tom Rindfleisch, Bruce Buchanan, and we published a awful lot of papers in which we did try to simulate a chemist's thinking in computer-intelligible language. What was most interesting, it stimulated us to do a lot of chemical research to fill gaps, intuitive gaps, in our own thinking, which the computer picked up because the computer program wasn't that intuitive yet. And that was really quite interesting, because chemists don't really wonder how they are thinking, they just do it. That really taught us an element of intellectual rigor. And it was a wonderful collaboration of people in medicine and computer science and chemistry.
As the DENDRAL programs evolved and made progress toward modeling the thought processes of chemists working to unravel molecular structures, Josh's interests returned to the broader possibilities of intelligent computer applications. The SUMEX-AIM resource that he created in the early 1970s produced many systems that were the seeds of artificial intelligence research for years to come.
[Thomas Rindfleisch:] About a year after I came to Stanford, a small group of us, led by Josh Lederberg, synthesized the ideas from ACME and DENDRAL in the form of a proposal to the NIH called SUMEX-AIM. SUMEX-AIM contained two fairly outlandish ideas at the time. The first was to develop a national community of AI in medicine application groups and the second was to interconnect them using networking technology that was just then under development by the ARPA community in the form of the ARPANET. SUMEX-AIM was the first non-DOD research resource on the ARPANET. In fact, we were node number 56 among a total of 63 on the entire network in that current implementation. SUMEX lasted for about 19 years and was the nursery for over 20 AI-in-medicine projects that were the best known in that era. Josh wrote a very important essay in 1977 that described these ideas. It was entitled Digital Communications and the Conduct of Science: The New Literacy. I'd like to quote a brief passage from this essay. In it he discussed how the convergence of economical digital communications with computer-aided tools would facilitate the interconnection of users separated both in time and space, and how this medium will increase the thoughtfulness of communication, return literacy in the efficient and precise use of language, and enhance scientific discourse in many ways. As I scan the e-mail in my inbox today, I'm not sure how much progress we have made in the literate use of language, but it is absolutely clear with the current form of the Internet that digital communications have profoundly changed the way science is conducted.
Josh left Stanford in 1978 to become president of The Rockefeller University in New York. Despite the heavy burdens of administering one of the nation's leading research universities, he continued to explore the synthesis of computing and communications tools with scientific research on many fronts.
[Edward Shortliffe:] I would say that Josh created an environment in which I was taught to understand computer science as science, and not simply the construction of artifacts. The scientific approach to computing, whereby one seeks to be sure that the results can generalize, where the experimentation is itself subjected to proof, and where there is an emphasis on methodologic development these were key elements in the environment and the way in which I learned computer science because of the scientific influence of people like Josh at that time. I saw a brilliant mind in action, and I saw in him an interest in basically all things intellectual and an ability to innovate in very diverse fields. There was much to emulate in Josh Lederberg and his mentoring.
To this day, Josh Lederberg continues to bring a sensitivity and appreciation of computing and communications to his advisory work and to his influence at the national and international level. He became president emeritus of Rockefeller in 1990 and returned to his roots as a citizen scientist. He has been particularly active in applying scientific understanding to the direction of research, to public health, and to policy. As was mentioned, he has worked hard at educating the public and government about the risks of biological terrorism and warfare and advising on detection and counter measures.
Josh has continued his active research laboratory at Rockefeller, working on the genetics, biochemistry, and evolution of DNA; on the computer modeling of scientific reasoning; and on exobiology and the search for the origins of life. He has been honored by the National Library of Medicine in their Profiles in Science program. The NLM is collecting and organizing Josh's voluminous papers as a contribution to the history of science. Most befitting Josh's career in medical informatics, this collection is available on the NLM's Web site. Josh's work in informatics is a lasting legacy, and he continues to pose challenges for the field.
[Lederberg:] One principle I'd like to have my name attached to, Lederberg's Principle, is that machines will become really smart only when (1) they can directly read the literature and (2) spend some time living in the real world, where the survival of the fittest is what will determine who's out there. As long as we have to spoon feed them, datum by datum, they're going to be moving in a very cumbersome and costly way indeed.
It is with pride, admiration, and affection that we salute Joshua Lederberg as he receives the 1999 Morris F. Collen Award.
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