Carl Djerassi

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Carl Djerassi
Carl Djerassi HD2004 AIC Gold Medal crop.JPG
Carl Djerassi in 2004
Born(1923-10-29)October 29, 1923
DiedJanuary 30, 2015(2015-01-30) (aged 91)
San Francisco, California, United States
Alma mater
Known for
Scientific career
Fields Chemistry

Carl Djerassi (October 29, 1923 – January 30, 2015) was an Austrian-born Bulgarian-American chemist, novelist, playwright and co-founder of Djerassi Resident Artists Program with Diane Wood Middlebrook. He is best known for his contribution to the development of oral contraceptive pills, [1] [2] [3] nicknamed the father of the pill. [4]

Chemist Scientist trained in the study of chemistry

A chemist is a scientist trained in the study of chemistry. Chemists study the composition of matter and its properties. Chemists carefully describe the properties they study in terms of quantities, with detail on the level of molecules and their component atoms. Chemists carefully measure substance proportions, reaction rates, and other chemical properties. The word 'chemist' is also used to address Pharmacists in Commonwealth English.

A novelist is an author or writer of novels, though often novelists also write in other genres of both fiction and non-fiction. Some novelists are professional novelists, thus make a living writing novels and other fiction, while others aspire to support themselves in this way or write as an avocation. Most novelists struggle to get their debut novel published, but once published they often continue to be published, although very few become literary celebrities, thus gaining prestige or a considerable income from their work.

A playwright or dramatist is a person who writes plays. One such person is William Shakespeare, who lived during both the Tudor and Stuart eras of British history.


Early life

Carl Djerassi was born in Vienna, Austria, but spent the first years of his infancy in Sofia, Bulgaria, the home of his father, Samuel Djerassi, a dermatologist and specialist in sexually transmitted diseases. [5] [6] His mother was Alice Friedmann, a Viennese dentist and physician. Both parents were Jewish. [1]

Vienna Capital city and state of Austria

Vienna is the federal capital, largest city and one of nine states of Austria. Vienna is Austria's primate city, with a population of about 1.9 million, and its cultural, economic, and political centre. It is the 7th-largest city by population within city limits in the European Union. Until the beginning of the 20th century, it was the largest German-speaking city in the world, and before the splitting of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I, the city had 2 million inhabitants. Today, it has the second largest number of German speakers after Berlin. Vienna is host to many major international organizations, including the United Nations and OPEC. The city is located in the eastern part of Austria and is close to the borders of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. These regions work together in a European Centrope border region. Along with nearby Bratislava, Vienna forms a metropolitan region with 3 million inhabitants. In 2001, the city centre was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In July 2017 it was moved to the list of World Heritage in Danger.

Austria Federal republic in Central Europe

Austria, officially the Republic of Austria, is a country in Central Europe comprising nine federated states. Its capital, largest city and one of nine states is Vienna. Austria has an area of 83,879 km2 (32,386 sq mi), a population of nearly nine million people and a nominal GDP of $477 billion. It is bordered by the Czech Republic and Germany to the north, Hungary and Slovakia to the east, Slovenia and Italy to the south, and Switzerland and Liechtenstein to the west. The terrain is landlocked and highly mountainous, lying within the Alps; only 32% of the country is below 500 m (1,640 ft), and its highest point is 3,798 m (12,461 ft). The majority of the population speaks local Bavarian dialects as their native language, and German in its standard form is the country's official language. Other regional languages are Hungarian, Burgenland Croatian, and Slovene.

Sofia Capital and largest city of Bulgaria

Sofia is the capital and largest city of Bulgaria. The city is at the foot of Vitosha Mountain in the western part of the country. Being in the centre of the Balkan peninsula, it is midway between the Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea, and closest to the Aegean Sea.

Following his parents' divorce, Djerassi and his mother moved to Vienna. Until the age of 14, he attended the same realgymnasium that Sigmund Freud had attended many years earlier; [7] he spent summers in Bulgaria with his father. [8]

Sigmund Freud Austrian neurologist known as the founding father of psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, a clinical method for treating psychopathology through dialogue between a patient and a psychoanalyst.

Austria refused him citizenship and after the Anschluss, his father briefly remarried his mother in 1938 to allow Carl and his mother to escape the Nazi regime and flee to Sofia, Bulgaria, where he lived with his father for a year. [1] Bulgaria, although not immune to antisemitism, proved a safe haven, as the country managed to save its entire 48,000-strong Jewish population from deportation to Nazi concentration camps. During his time in Sofia, Djerassi attended the American College of Sofia where he became fluent in English. [8]

<i>Anschluss</i> annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany on 12 March 1938

Anschluss refers to the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany on 12 March 1938. The word's German spelling, until the German orthography reform of 1996, was Anschluß and it was also known as the Anschluss Österreichs.

American College of Sofia

The American College of Sofia is a secondary school in Bulgaria, based in the capital city of Sofia.

In December 1939, Djerassi arrived with his mother in the United States, nearly penniless. Djerassi's mother worked in a group practice in upstate New York. [1] In 1949, his father emigrated to the United States, [1] practiced in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and eventually retired near his son in San Francisco.

New York (state) State of the United States of America

New York is a state in the Northeastern United States. New York was one of the original thirteen colonies that formed the United States. With an estimated 19.54 million residents in 2018, it is the fourth most populous state. In order to distinguish the state from the city with the same name, it is sometimes referred to as New York State.

San Francisco Consolidated city-county in California, US

San Francisco, officially the City and County of San Francisco, is a city in, and the cultural, commercial, and financial center of, Northern California. San Francisco is the 13th-most populous city in the United States, and the fourth-most populous in California, with 883,305 residents as of 2018. It covers an area of about 46.89 square miles (121.4 km2), mostly at the north end of the San Francisco Peninsula in the San Francisco Bay Area, making it the second-most densely populated large US city, and the fifth-most densely populated U.S. county, behind only four of the five New York City boroughs. San Francisco is also part of the fifth-most populous primary statistical area in the United States, the San Jose–San Francisco–Oakland, CA Combined Statistical Area.


Djerassi started his college career at Newark Junior College, briefly attended Tarkio College, and then studied chemistry at Kenyon College, where he graduated summa cum laude . [9] [8] After one year at CIBA, he moved to the University of Wisconsin–Madison where he earned his Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1945. [6] His thesis work examined the transformation of the male sex hormone testosterone into the female sex hormone estradiol, through a sequence of chemical reactions. [10]

Tarkio College

Tarkio College was a college that operated in Tarkio, Missouri, from 1883 to 1992. The institution was supported by the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.

Kenyon College private liberal arts college in Gambier, Ohio, United States

Kenyon College is a private liberal arts college in Gambier, Ohio. It was founded in 1824 by Philander Chase. Kenyon College is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

Novartis Swiss multinational pharmaceutical company

Novartis International AG is a Swiss multinational pharmaceutical company based in Basel, Switzerland. It is one of the largest pharmaceutical companies by both market capitalization and sales.


In 1942/43, Djerassi worked for CIBA in New Jersey, developing Pyribenzamine [8] (tripelennamine), his first patent and one of the first commercial antihistamines. [1] [2]

In 1949 Djerassi became associate director of research at Syntex in Mexico City and remained there through 1951. [8] He has said that one factor influencing him to choose Syntex was that they had a DU spectrophotometer. [11] He worked on a new synthesis of cortisone based on diosgenin, a steroid sapogenin derived from a Mexican wild yam. [12] His team later synthesized norethisterone (norethindrone), [13] the first highly active progestin analogue that was effective when taken by mouth. This became part of one of the first successful combined oral contraceptive pills, known colloquially as the birth-control pill, or simply, the Pill. From 1952–1959 he was professor of chemistry at Wayne State University in Detroit. [8]

Djerassi participated in the invention in 1951, together with Mexican Luis E. Miramontes and Hungarian-Mexican George Rosenkranz, of the progestin norethisterone—which, unlike progesterone, remained effective when taken orally and was far stronger than the naturally occurring hormone. His preparation was first administered as an oral contraceptive to animals by Gregory Goodwin Pincus and Min Chueh Chang and to women by John Rock. [14]

In 1957, he became vice president of research at Syntex in Mexico City while on leave of absence from Wayne State. In 1960 Djerassi became a professor of chemistry at Stanford University, [8] a position he held until 2002 [15] but only part-time as he never left industry. [3] From 1968 until 1972 he also served as president of Syntex Research at Palo Alto. [8]

The Syntex connection brought wealth to Djerassi. He bought a large tract of land in Woodside, California, and started a cattle ranch called SMIP. (Initially an acronym for "Syntex Made It Possible", other variants have been suggested since.) He also assembled a large art collection. His collection of works by Paul Klee was considered to be one of the most significant to be privately held. [7] [16] He arranged for his Klee collections to be donated to the Albertina in Vienna and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, effective on his death. [17]

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Djerassi continued to do significant scientific work, as a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Stanford University, and as an entrepreneur. He pioneered novel physical research techniques for mass spectrometry and optical rotatory dispersion and applied them to the areas of organic chemistry and the life sciences. [18] Focusing on the steroid hormones and alkaloids, he elucidated the structure of steroids, an area in which he published over 1,200 papers. [1] His scientific interests were wide-ranging, and his technological achievements include work in instrumentation, pharmaceuticals, insect control, the application of artificial intelligence in biomedical research, and the biology and chemistry of marine organisms. [18]

In 1968, he started a new company, Zoecon, [8] which focused on environmentally soft methods of pest control, using modified insect growth hormones to stop insects from metamorphosing from the larval stage to the pupal and adult stages. [19] Zoecon was eventually acquired by Occidental Petroleum, which later sold it to Sandoz, now Novartis. Part of Zoecon survives in Dallas, Texas, making products to control fleas and other pests.

In 1965 at Stanford University, nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg, computer scientist Edward Feigenbaum, and Djerassi devised the computer program DENDRAL (dendritic algorithm) for the elucidation of the molecular structure of unknown organic compounds taken from known groups of such compounds, such as the alkaloids and the steroids. [20] This was a prototype for expert systems and one of the first uses of artificial intelligence in biomedical research. [20]

Djerassi was a member of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists [21] and was chairman of the Pharmanex Scientific Advisory Board. [22]


Djerassi published widely as a novelist, playwright and scientist. [23] [24] [25] [26] In 1985, Djerassi said "I feel like I'd like to lead one more life. I'd like to leave a cultural imprint on society rather than just a technological benefit." [8] [18] He went on to write several novels in the "science-in-fiction" genre, including Cantor's Dilemma, [27] in which he explored the ethics of modern scientific research through his protagonist, Dr. Cantor. He also wrote four autobiographies, the most recent of which, In Retrospect appeared in 2014. [18] He wrote a number of plays which have been performed and extensively translated. [28] [29] His book Chemistry in Theatre: Insufficiency, Phallacy or Both discusses the potential pedagogic value of using dialogic style and the plot structure of plays with special focus on chemistry. [30]


Djerassi wrote five novels, four of which he describes as "science-in-fiction", [31] [32] fiction which portrays the lives of real scientists, with all their accomplishments, conflicts, and aspirations. The genre is also referred to as Lab lit. [33]

In his first two novels, Cantor's Dilemma and Bourbaki Gambit, he shows how scientists work and think. In Cantor's Dilemma, there is the suspicion of scientific fraud; in Bourbaki Gambit the question of personal achievement stands in the center. [34] In the third, Menachem's Seed, ICSI and the Pugwash organization are the main themes. [35] In the last, NO, he shows how young scientists develop an idea as far as founding a company to market a product [36] - something Djerassi himself did in the field of insecticides.

The topic of the fifth novel, Marx Deceased, is the role of a writer's earlier bestsellers for the assessment of a new work - in contrast to the assessment of an anonymous work or one of a formerly unknown author. [37] He plays with this topic also in Bourbaki Gambit.


After his success with prose literature in the Science-in-Fiction genre, Carl Djerassi started to write plays. [29] Theatre, even more so than prose, seems to fulfill his desire to work in a more “dialogical” environment than the monological natural sciences had allowed him to do. [28] According to British director Andy Jordan, who has produced all of his plays in England, Djerassi's dramatic works are “not wholly or straightforwardly naturalistic or realistic […but] avowedly text-driven, where ideas, themes, words and language were majorly important, a fact I had always to be conscious of as the director.” [38]

Djerassi's first play, An Immaculate Misconception (1998), dealing with the in vitro fertilization procedure ICSI, [39] was followed by two plays about priority struggles in the history of science, Oxygen (co-authored with Roald Hoffmann, 1999) [40] and Calculus (2002), [41] and a drama at the intersection of chemistry and art history, Phallacy (2004). [42] Ego (2003, also produced under the title Three on a Couch), [43] together with the docudrama Four Jews on Parnassus (2006, publ. 2008) [44] and Foreplay (2010), [28] are the only three dramatic pieces which do not deal with science-in-literature but rather carry the notion of intellectual competitiveness into literature, philosophy and the humanities. Taboos (2006), a complex play between reproductive, gender and political issues, returns to Djerassi's central concerns as a scientist; [45] his 2012 play Insufficiency is a bitter satire of both the scientific community and academic environments. [29]

As in his novels, Djerassi's plays incorporate the life and achievements of (sometimes famous) scientists as well as new scientific technologies. The science in his plays is always scientifically plausible although the dramatic personae and locations are fictitious. [46] By placing scientists and research into dramatic worlds, he raises critical questions about the sciences as cultural systems and looks into internal conflicts and contradictions in science and between scientists. [47] The constant competition between them, the need for priority in new scientific discoveries even if the required speed necessitates risky and immoral means, as well as the problematic consequences of new discoveries are important topics of the plays.

Connected with many of these questions is the role of women in the sciences (including researchers’ wives and female friends). Djerassi's plays recognize the special contributions women make as scientists and to science, both directly and indirectly. His female characters are usually depicted as strong and independent, proving a strong impact of feminist thinking on his work. [43]

Djerassi's plays have found their way into theatres around the globe and have been translated into a large number of European and Asian languages. [29] Djerassi repeatedly revised his plays and some of them have different versions and multiple endings [48] (especially "An Immaculate Misconception": the nationalities of the main characters vary, also the endings). Where possible, Carl Djerassi also cooperated with directors in the production of dramatic performances. [49] All of his plays have been published in book form, many of them in a number of languages. Some of them can be downloaded from his website.


Djerassi wrote numerous poems that were published in journals or anthologies. Some of the poems reflected his life as a chemist (e.g. Why are chemists not poets or The clock runs backwards), others his personal life (e.g. A Diary of Pique). [50] [51] [52]




Awards and honors

Patent of the first orally highly active progestin, which led to the development of the oral contraceptive, elected to the USA Inventors Hall of Fame. Miramontes patent.jpg
Patent of the first orally highly active progestin, which led to the development of the oral contraceptive, elected to the USA Inventors Hall of Fame.

Djerassi won numerous awards during his career including:

Djerassi Glacier on Brabant Island in Antarctica is named after Carl Djerassi. [88]

An award that eluded Djerassi was the Nobel Prize, where he is considered one of the more notable "snubs" by the Nobel Committee. [89]

Personal life

Djerassi was married three times. He and Virginia Jeremiah were married in 1943 and divorced in 1950. [90] Djerassi married Norma Lundholm later that year. They had two children, and were divorced in 1976. [91]

In 1977, Djerassi began a relationship with bestselling biographer and Stanford University professor of English Diane Middlebrook, and in 1985 they were married. In 2002 she became professor emerita to work full-time as a biographer. In that same year, Djerassi also became professor emeritus. [92] They divided their time between homes in San Francisco and in London (their life there recalled by a friend [93] ), until her death on 15 December 2007. [92]

On July 5, 1978, Djerassi's artist daughter Pamela (from his second marriage, to Norma Lundholm), committed suicide, [94] [95] which is described in his autobiography. With Middlebrook's help, Djerassi then considered how he could help living artists, rather than collecting works of dead ones. He visited existing artist colonies, such as Yaddo and MacDowell, and decided to create his own, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. [7] [16] He closed his cattle ranch and converted the barn and houses to residential and work space for artists. [96] [97] He and his wife moved to a high rise in San Francisco that they had renovated.

Djerassi's son Dale (also with Norma Lundholm) is a documentary filmmaker and private investor. [98]

Djerassi described himself as a "Jewish atheist". [99]

Djerassi died on January 30, 2015, at the age of 91 from complications of liver and bone cancer. [1] [100]

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