- Lara Marks
Djerassi, Carl (29 Oct. 1923–30 Jan. 2015), organic chemist, novelist, and playwright, was born in Vienna, Austria, the only child of the Samuel Djerassi (Bulgarian) and Alice Friedmann (Austrian), both assimilated Jews. Samuel was a physician who specialized in the treatment of venereal diseases, calling himself a dermatologist to protect his wealthy clients’ reputations. Alice was a dentist and physician. Djerassi lived in Sofia, Bulgaria until he was five and then moved to Vienna with his mother following his parents’ divorce. He went to the same Viennese school formerly attended by Sigmund Freud. Every summer Djerassi returned to his father in Bulgaria.
In 1938, refused Austrian citizenship following Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria, Djerassi, now fourteen, was forced to leave Vienna. He and his mother fled to live with his father in Sofia, still a safe haven for Jews. They did this after his mother secured a Bulgarian passport by briefly remarrying Samuel. Djerassi attended the American College in Sofia where he learned English. A year later his mother secured a visa to the United States.
Djerassi and his mother arrived in New York almost penniless in December 1939 only to have a taxi driver trick them out of their last remaining dollars. With the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Djerassi’s mother soon found work in a group practice in Newark. The Society also arranged for Djerassi to be taken care of by a local Newark family, the Meiers. Djerassi fondly recalled how much he enjoyed the family’s welcoming liberal home. Mrs. Meier came from a family of radical German Jewish intellectuals and was a school vice principal and teacher. Mr. Meier worked as an industrial chemist for the Engelhardt Company. Their two sons, August and Paul, were close in age to Djerassi.
Expected to either follow in the medical footsteps of his parents or to pursue law, Djerassi opted instead to do chemistry. This was inspired by a small introductory class in chemistry he took at Newark Junior College. At the age of sixteen he took the audacious step of writing a letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who helped him obtain a scholarship to Tarkio College in Missouri, a place attended by the inventor of nylon, Wallace Carothers. After briefly attending Tarkio, Djerassi studied chemistry at Kenyon College, Ohio, graduating summa cum laude in 1942. Thereafter, at age nineteen, he worked for CIBA, a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey, and within a year had helped develop and patent pyribenzamine, one of the first commercial antihistamines. In 1943 Djerassi took leave from CIBA to do a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, which he completed in 1945. His doctoral research involved chemically converting the male hormone, testosterone, into the female hormone estrogen. His childless 1943 marriage to Virginia Jeremiah ended in divorce in 1950. That year he married Norma Lundholm, with whom he had two children.
Djerassi remained with CIBA as a research chemist until 1948 when he became associate director of chemical research at Syntex, S.A., a small pharmaceutical company in Mexico City. Syntex had been set up in 1944 by Russell Marker, an American chemist, together with European refugee scientists. The company aimed to commercially exploit a technique Marker had devised for the cheap production of sex hormones from a wild Mexican yam which Parke-Davis, an American company, had rejected but which provided a key to breaking the cartel of European pharmaceutical companies in hormone production. When Djerassi arrived at Syntex, the company was just recovering from the departure of Marker following a dispute over his payment and shares. Marker had taken with him the company’s most valuable asset—its expertise in steroid chemistry and the production of progesterone, a female hormone. Djerassi was hired as part of Syntex’s drive to expand its steroid intermediaries and realize its industrial potential. Syntex offered Djerassi the chance both to strengthen his industrial and scientific career and to work on cortisone, a steroid many companies were then competing to produce cheaply as a potential drug for treating arthritis.
The synthesis of cortisone rested on progestogen derivatives for which Syntex was a global leading supplier. Such hormones were not only in demand at this time for cortisone production, but were also being sought as treatments for menstrual disorders and recurrent miscarriages. On 15 October 1951 Djerassi, together with Luis Miramontes, an undergraduate Mexican student, synthesized norethisterone, a pure crystalline progesterone compound. Hoping this could be used as a gynecological treatment they sent it to Roy Hertz at the National Institute for Cancer in Bethesda, Maryland for testing. Finding norethisterone to be five times greater in strength than most oral progesterone then available, Hertz pointed out its potential to be an effective oral contraceptive. While norethisterone was the first progestogen synthesized with oral contraceptive potential, the first contraceptive pill to be patented and make it to market was norethynodrel. This bothered Djerassi for many years, but reflected the fact norethynodrel was synthesized by Frank Colton at G.D. Searle, which, as an American company, had better contacts than Syntex for negotiating the necessary hurdles for patenting and clinical testing. It also reflected the fact that various research teams were working on similar research, which is often how scientific research unfolds.
For the remainder of his life, Djerassi wrote numerous articles and books considering the social impact of the contraceptive pill. When the pill was first marketed birth control was still highly taboo and illegal in some US states. From Djerassi’s perspective the pill helped separate sex from procreation and opened up sex as a recreation, thereby aiding the 1960s sexual revolution.
In addition to the pill Djerassi helped pioneer topical corticosteroids, used to treat allergies and inflammation, new approaches for pest control, and a test for detecting opiate use. From 1952 he was a professor of chemistry at Wayne State University in Detroit. In 1959 he became a professor of chemistry at Stanford University, where he remained until his retirement in 2002. In addition to teaching, he also continued to work with various pharmaceutical companies.
Djerassi was also active beyond the laboratory, being outspoken on many issues. Encouraged by his third wife Diane Middlebrook, a Stanford English professor he married in 1985 (his second marriage ended in divorce in 1976, the year before he began his relationship with Middlebrook), he wrote feisty novels, plays, and poems designed to highlight the personal struggles and ethical dilemmas scientists face in their work and called on the scientific community to give greater priority to problems faced by less developed countries. He was also an avid art collector and active philanthropist, helping to found and fund an artists’ colony in California in memory of his artist daughter, Pamela, who committed suicide. This he did on the back of the lucrative royalties he gained from his pharmaceutical work. He died in San Francisco.
As one of the synthesizers of the first compounds for oral contraception, Djerassi’s work helped transform the efficacy and acceptability of birth control. This not only helped fuel the sexual revolution of the 1960s, but also freed women to pursue education and careers on an unprecedented scale. In addition to his chemical work, Djerassi was a prolific writer who shone light on the dilemmas and difficulties scientists faced in their daily work.
Djerassi wrote four autobiographies which are good starting places for understanding his work in science, business, academia, and the arts: Steroids Made It Possible (1990); The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas’ Horse (1992); This Man’s Pill: Reflections of the 50th Birthday of the Pill (2003); and In Retrospect: From the Pill to the Pen (2014). His personal papers are deposited at the Stanford University Archive. The collection covers 1952–2014 and contains his scientific papers, laboratory notebooks, correspondence, manuscripts, and reprints. There is also a transcript of an interview with Carl Djerassi, 31 July 1985, held by the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Another source of information is “A Conversation with Carl Djerassi,” an interview by Roger Kornberg, Annual Review of Biochemistry, https://vimeo.com/59485470. An obituary appeared in The New York Times on 31 January 2015.