Joshua Lederberg Z''l His Memory Should Be A Blessing

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  • 02/05/2008
I met Joshua Lederberg four years ago when I was at the Manhattan Institute and was nominally the chair of the 21st Century FDA Reform Task Force. The idea for the task force was Dr. Lederberg’s and while he did not want to be chairman, he was it’s driving force. and it was conceived over lunch where I took notes as he spoke about using polymorphism and mechanistic pathways to improve not only the predictability of drug development and medicine but also the science governing reimbursement and legal proceedings shaping health care policy.

I had no clue what he was talking about. All I knew was that here was a Nobel Prize winner willing to spend time with me when he could be in his lab or lecturing. Over the next two years I met with Dr. Lederberg regularly, sometimes in his office, sometimes in his apartment where he made me lunch. Throughout he was too patient with me steep learning curve and too kind to say anything about the initial, rambling drafts of the Task Force report except “I admire your enthusiasm.”

Dr. Lederberg will be remembered for his endless contributions to molecular biology, to public understanding of medical progress and to the medical applications of the genome. Those who had the pleasure and honor of working with him will remember his kindness, his humility and his insistence on finding concrete answers to the difficult questions he often posed to Task Force members.

He once asked Peter (who was on the Task Force and my co-author): Is innovation possible? In posing that question, Dr. Lederberg (almost everyone called him Josh) simultaneously proposed the creation of a non-profit foundation that would fund the transfer of new knowledge of drug development to academics, entrepreneurs and others to accelerate biomedical innovation.

He passed away before that proposal was implemented. The last time I visited with him at his apartment I noticed a volume of Pirkei Avot, a chapter of the Mishnah, which is a compilation of ethical teachings of the rabbis of the Mishnaic period. One particular saying comes to mind: And "He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say, it is not upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to idle from it. Joshua Lederberg, son of a rabbi, took that teaching to heart. It is now up to us to follow in his footsteps. Zichron l'bracha, his memory should be a blessing for us all.

Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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