Esther Lederberg, Microbiologist ( Esther_Lederberg)

Women and Adversity:

Esther Lederberg
Microbiologist: Pioneer in Bacterial Genetics
 Discovered Lambda Phage virus

Few people know what lambda phage virus is, but Esther Lederberg discovered it in 1951. This discovery is said to have revolutionized how to understand viruses. I have no intention of saying more about it since I don’t have a clue what it means. Readers with scientific interests can learn more on their own. I’m interested because Esther’s husband, Joshua Lederberg, George Beadle and Edward Tatum claimed the Nobel Prize in 1958 for its discovery. They literally stole the prize from her and stole her glory without giving her any credit. She also helped discover the genetic extrachromosomal element, called the sex factor, responsible for genetic mating but did get credit for it.

She lost glory again in 1959 when Joshua was given the title of chair of the new department of Genetics at Stanford. Because she was a woman, Esther was given an untenured position on the faculty in the department of microbiology and immunology.

She learned Hebrew as a young girl even though it was frowned upon for girls to learn the language. She played the recorder, a Middle Ages instrument like a flute, and had an extraordinary interest in baroque, medieval and Renaissance music. She founded a recorder orchestra in California in 1962.

She had many talents but was modest about singing her own praises, which is probably the reason she was overlooked so often. Although some reports say she fought for women’s recognition, it doesn’t seem like she spoke loudly enough.


  • Esther Zimmer was born in the Bronx, New York, December 18, 1922 of an Orthodox Jewish family
  • 1938 – graduated from Evander Child High School at the age of 16
  • 1942- graduated from Hunter College, City University of New York
  • 1946 – master’s degree in genetics from Stanford University, California
  • 1946 – married Joshua Lederberg
  • 1950 – Ph.D. in microbiology from University of Wisconsin, Madison
  • 1962 – founded a recorder orchestra in California
  • 1966 – Esther and Joshua divorced
  • 1993 – married Matthew Simon, an engineer


  • Early 1950s – Esther and her husband, Joshua, developed the technique of replica plating.
    This is too complicated for me to explain. Look it up if you’re interested.
    1958 – Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine awarded to the three men named above.
  • 1959 – the Lederbergs returned to Stanford
  • 1974 – given title of adjunct professor at Stanford
  • 1976-1986 – director of Stanford University’s Plasmid Reference Centre

Lederberg died of pneumonia and congestive heart failure November 11, 2006 in Stanford.

More information

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Honoring 23 Black Women, Recognizing 23 Notable Mothers, Saluting 23 Faithful Suffragists  



Article By: Jo Ann Mathews

I published three ebooks in 2020: Women and Adversity, Honoring 23 Black Women; Women and Adversity, Recognizing 23 Notable Mothers; and Women and Adversity, Saluting 23 Faithful Suffragists to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. These books are meant to be study guides for all students from grade school through college to help in choosing topics for assignments and to learn more about these noteworthy women. Go to, and to learn more.

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