In this follow-up letter, Lederberg thanked Ephrussi for searching for a manuscript written by Harriett Ephrussi-Taylor, Ephrussi's
late wife. With this letter, Lederberg enclosed various excerpts from the manuscript with the hope that it would aid Ephrussi
in any further search for the document. Ephrussi-Taylor worked in Avery's lab for several years during the mid-1940s before
moving to France shortly after her marriage to Ephrussi. Ephrussi-Taylor died in 1968 from cancer. On the bottom of the letter,
Lederberg added a handwritten note: "Boris--I am sure this king of digging into the past must carry some pain, but I hope
this is also ameliorated by the respect and regard for Harriett which it substantiates. You know I have only the warmest feelings
Item is a photocopy.
Number of Image Pages:
1 (98,670 Bytes)
1972-10-05 (October 5, 1972)
Reproduced with permission of Joshua Lederberg.
Medical Subject Headings (MeSH):
History of Medicine
After the Discovery: The Transforming Principle's Reception by the Scientific Community
Letter from Joshua Lederberg to Boris Ephrussi (September 1972)
Letter from Boris Ephrussi to Joshua Lederberg (September 25, 1972)
I was very glad to get your note of September 25th. I think that if you saw only my letter to Nature and not the Wyatt paper
to which it was addressed, you might think that I was insufficiently critical about the attitudes of some of the leading geneticists
about Avery in 1944. There is no question that at that time very few people appreciated the seminal significance of Avery's
findings, although it was discussed very widely and surely no one thought that it was unimportant. What is difficult to remember
in hindsight is how unsure we had to be at that time about a specific interpretation of those findings, and Avery's own
refusal to commit himself to any speculations certainly contributed to the aura of bafflement. It really was very clear-sighted
of Harriett to jump from the traditions of the Zoology Department and to see how exciting an opportunity it would be to work
with him. The main point that Wyatt made, with which I have to disagree, is that Avery's work was literally "overlooked",
in the sense that the geneticists were not even aware of it. Harriett herself undoubtedly played an important role in preventing
such an eventuality, but we should also recall that Dobzhansky spent considerable space on the transformation phenomenon,
and referred to it in the context of Avery's laboratory, in his book on "The Origin of Species". I have a very
firm recollection, shared by many others, that this reference was very widely discussed among geneticists in the early 40's.
The main point, in my mind, is that many geneticists were simply unprepared to examine any observations on bacteria as relevant
to the main stream of the science. And, of course, by and large the microbiologists had exactly converse prejudices. I am
enclosing the fragments that Harriett did send me of the paper that I asked you about in hopes that this might remind you
of what I was looking for. It would be unfortunate if the rest of that draft has disappeared, but perhaps Rollin or someone
else, in fact, has it, and I will make a parallel inquiry.
I am glad to know that it will be worth trying to contact you in Paris next summer, and I will write you further about that
when our own possible plans are in clearer sight.
Professor of Genetics
[HANDWRITTEN NOTE:] Boris - I am sure this kind of digging into the past must carry some pain, but I hope this is also ameliorated
by the respect and regard for Harriet which it substantiates. You know I have only the warmest feelings for you. Josh.