Carl Djerassi

Carl Djerassi

Infobox Scientist
name = Carl Djerassi
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caption = Carl Djerassi
birth_date = birth date and age|1923|10|29
birth_place = Vienna, Austria
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nationality = Austria
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field = chemist
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known_for = first oral contraceptive pill
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Carl Djerassi (born October 29, 1923 in Vienna, Austria), is a chemist, novelist, and playwright best known for his contribution to the development of the first oral contraceptive pill (OCP). He participated in the invention in 1951, together with Mexican Luis E. Miramontes and Hungarian George Rosenkranz, of the progestin norethindrone—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 Pincus and Min Chueh Chang and to women by John Rock. Djerassi remarked that he did not have birth control in mind when he began working with progesterone — "not in our wildest dreams… did we imagine (it)". He is also the author of the novel "Cantor's Dilemma", in which he explores the ethics of modern scientific research through his protagonist, Dr. Cantor.


Djerassi's mother, Alice Friedmann, was an Austrian Ashkenazi Jew; his father, Samuel Djerassi, was a Bulgarian Sephardic Jew. His parents met in medical school at the University of Vienna, married, and moved to Sofia, Bulgaria. His mother returned to Vienna for two months for the birth of Carl, her only child. Djerassi lived in Bulgaria with his parents until he was five. Following his parents' divorce, Djerassi and his mother then moved to Vienna to take advantage of the better school system. Until age fourteen, he attended the same Realgymnasium that Sigmund Freud had attended many years earlier; he spent summers in Bulgaria with his father. After the "Anschluss," his father briefly remarried his mother in 1938 to allow Carl to escape the Nazi regime and flee to Bulgaria, where he lived with his father for a year. Djerassi's father was a physician who specialized in treating syphilis. His successful practice in Sofia was limited to a few wealthy patients whose treatment lasted for years. He attended the American College of Sofia and attained fluency in English, while his mother went to England to await a visa to emigrate to the United States. In 1939, the 16-year-old Djerassi arrived with his mother in the United States, nearly penniless - they had only $20 between them, which was swindled from them by a cab driver. Djerassi attended Newark Junior College (now defunct) in New Jersey, giving him the American equivalent of a high school diploma.

Djerassi's mother worked in a group practice in upstate New York. In 1949, his father also emigrated to the United States and eventually settled near his son in San Francisco.

Djerassi wrote a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, asking where he should go to college. She sent him a reply with "veiled advice", and he found a school and a scholarship. He attended Tarkio College (now defunct) in Missouri, and later Kenyon College.

Djerassi graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Kenyon in 1942 with a B.A. in organic chemistry. He worked for Ciba the year before and four years after his graduate studies. At Ciba, he got his first patent, for the antihistamine Pyribenzamine, which became a popular prescription drug. He married his first wife, Virginia, an American, in 1943 before beginning graduate study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1945. He became an American citizen in 1945.

In 1949, Djerassi was recruited to be the associate director of research at Syntex in Mexico City by then-technical director George Rosenkranz, working there from 1950-1951. At Syntex, he worked on a new synthesis of cortisone based on diosgenin, a steroid sapogenin derived from a Mexican wild yam. His team later synthesized norethindrone, a progestin-analogue that was effective when taken by mouth. This became part of the first successful oral contraceptive, the combined oral contraceptive pill (COCP). COCPs became known colloquially as "the birth-control pill", or simply, "the Pill."

From 1952 to 1959, Djerassi taught chemistry at Wayne State University. He returned to Syntex from 1957 to 1960, while on a leave of absence. [ cite book
last = Djerassi | first = Carl | title = Steroids Made It Possible | publisher = An American Chemical Society Publication
date = 1990-05-01 | pages = 205 | doi = | id =ISBN 0-8412-1773-4
] [ cite book
last = Djerassi | first = Carl | title = The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse | publisher = Basic Books |date=April 1992 | pages = 336 | id =ISBN 0-465-05759-4

Since 1959, Djerassi has been a professor of chemistry at Stanford University and the president of Syntex Laboratories in Mexico City and Palo Alto, California. He later started a company called Zoecon, which used modified insect growth hormones to control fleas and other insect pests. Zoecon flourished for a few decades and then was bought by Occidental Petroleum; for a few years, Djerassi was on the board of directors of Occidental.

The Syntex connection made Djerassi a rich man. He bought a large tract of land in Woodside, California, started a cattle ranch, and also built up a large art collection. His next-door neighbor was musician Neil Young, whose band could sometimes be heard rehearsing from several miles away.

With his second wife, Norma Lundholm, he had a son, Dale, who is a documentary filmmaker; and a daughter, Pamela, who was an artist. His daughter suffered from chronic pain as well as depression, and took a fatal overdose of prescription drugs in July 1978. After Pamela's suicide, Djerassi founded the Djerassi Resident Artists Program (DRAP) in her memory. Djerassi was married to biographer and Stanford professor emerita Diane Middlebrook until her death in December 2007, living in San Francisco and London.

Djerassi is a leading collector of the works of Paul Klee. His pieces are frequently exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, to which he bequeathed his entire Klee collection. He stopped collecting when he founded DRAP, deciding that he would rather patronize living artists than dead ones. He later closed down his cattle ranch, converted the barn and the houses to residential and work space for a number of artists of many kinds, brought in a prize-winning chef, and moved to a building he had renovated in San Francisco, where he occupies one floor as a turn-of-the-millennium "salon." Djerassi and Middlebrook alternate between hemispheres about once a year.

ocial impact of scientific work

Djerassi perceived the pill as having a huge impact on the social processes of women and men, which to a significant extent is influenced through the sociobiology of sexual reproduction. He anticipated a far greater social impact on men than on women, in what he called as the "feminization of men", implying the "social-feminization" of laws and social values in favor of women in society as a whole.

Awards and honors

Djerassi was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Nixon for his work on the Pill. As he reported in his memoir, he was on the White House "enemies list" at the time. He learned this from an article in the "San Francisco Examiner" several months later.

In 1975 he was awarded the Perkin Medal.

In 1978, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 1991, he was awarded the National Medal of Technology for "his broad technological contributions to solving environmental problems; and for his initiatives in developing novel, practical approaches to insect control products that are biodegradable and harmless."

In 1992 he was awarded the Priestley Medal.

Austria has issued a postage stamp with Djerassi's picture on it. The Austrian government also sent him a new Austrian passport. He was awarded the Austrian Cross of Honor for Art and Science, First Class in 1999.

Djerassi is a member of the Board of Sponsors of the "Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists" [cite web | authorlink =Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists | title = Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists | url = | accessdate = 2006-10-23 ] and is chairman of the Pharmanex Scientific Advisory Board. [cite web
title = Carl Djerassi, Ph.D.
url =
accessdate = 2006-12-17



*"Optical Rotatory Dispersion", McGraw-Hill & Company, 1960.
*"The Politics of Contraception", W H Freeman & Company, 1981, ISBN 0-7167-1342-X
*"Steroids Made it Possible (Profiles, Pathways, and Dreams)", American Chemical Society, 1990, ISBN 0-8412-1773-4 (autobiography)
*"The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse", Basic Books, 1992, ISBN 0-465-05758-6 (autobiography)
*"From the Lab into The World: A Pill for People, Pets, and Bugs", American Chemical Society, 1994, ISBN 0-8412-2808-6
*"Paul Klee: Masterpieces of the Djerassi Collection", (coeditor), Prestel Publishing, 2002, ISBN 3-7913-2779-8
*"Dalla pillola alla penna", Di Renzo Editore, 2004, ISBN 8883230868
*"This Man's Pill: Reflections on the 50th Birthday of the Pill ", Oxford University Press, USA, 2004, ISBN 0-19-860695-8 (memoir)


*"Futurist and Other Stories", Macdonald, 1989, ISBN 0-356-17500-6
*"The Clock Runs Backwards", Story Line Press, 1991, ISBN 0-934257-75-2
*"Marx, Deceased", University of Georgia Press, 1996, ISBN 0-8203-1835-3


Djerassi inventedFact|date=July 2008 the genre called "science-in-fiction" to portray the lives of real scientists, with all their accomplishments, conflicts, and aspirations.
*"Cantor's Dilemma", Penguin, 1989, ISBN 0-14-014359-9
*"The Bourbaki Gambit", Penguin, 1994, ISBN 0-14-025485-4
*"Menachem's Seed", Penguin, 1996, ISBN 0-14-027794-3
*"NO", Penguin, 1998, ISBN 0-14-029654-9


*"An Immaculate Misconception: Sex in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction", Imperial College Press, 2000, ISBN 1-86094-248-2 (adapted from the novel "Menachem's Seed")
**L.A. Theatre Works, Audio Theatre Collection CD, 2004, ISBN 1-58081-286-4
*"Oxygen", Wiley-VCH, {with Roald Hoffmann, coauthor), 2001, ISBN 3-527-30413-4
*"Newton's Darkness: Two Dramatic Views", (with David Pinner, coauthor), Imperial College Press, 2004, ISBN 1-86094-390-X
*"Four Jews on Parnassus"


*cite book | author=Marks, Lara V | title=Sexual Chemistry: A History Of The Contraceptive Pill | publisher=Diane Publishing Company | year=2004 | id=ISBN 0-300-08943-0
*cite book | author=Tone, Andrea | title=Devices and Desires | location=New York | publisher=Hill and Wang, A Division of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux | year=2001 | id=ISBN 0-8090-3817-X


External links

* [ Personal website]
* (Carl Djerassi, telling his life story)
* [ Extended biography]
* [ Djerassi Resident Artists Program]

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