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Carl Djerassi


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)" — though he is now referred to by some as the father of the pill. 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. Top 30 Most Influential Persons in the Last Millenium



Djerassi's mother was an Austrian Ashkenazi Jew and his father was a Bulgarian Sephardic Jew: this may explain why the name Djerassi looks more Spanish than Bulgarian. (The Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, by Ferdinand and Isabella.) They 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 her only child. Djerassi lived in Bulgaria with his parents until he was five. He and his mother then moved to Vienna, which had better schools, in most respects. Until age fourteen, he attended the same Realgymnasium that Sigmund Freud had attended many years earlier, spending summers in Bulgaria with his father, who had divorced his mother. (He didn't know about the divorce for several years.) After the Anschluss, his father briefly remarried his mother to allow Carl to escape the Nazi regime and flee to Bulgaria in 1938, where he lived with his father for a year, attending the American College of Sofia and perfected his fluency in English, while his mother went to England to await a visa to emigrate to the United States. (Djerassi claims to be one of the few people to have twice forgotten the same language—Bulgarian.) 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 clever cab driver). Djerassi attended Newark Junior College (now defunct) in New Jersey, which completed his high-school education in accord with American expectations.

Djerassi's mother, Alice Friedmann, had difficulty practicing medicine in a new country. She helped another doctor in a group practice in upstate New York. Eventually, she retired.

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 went to Tarkio College (now defunct) in Missouri, then went to Kenyon College, which is better known for literature— it's the home of the Kenyon Review—than for chemistry.

Djerassi's father, Samuel Djerassi, was a physician who specialized in treating syphilis. His practice, in Sofia, Bulgaria, was limited to a few wealthy patients, whose treatment lasted for years. Even during and after World War II, his practice was successful, although it could no longer have been confined to treating syphilitics with now-obsolete drugs. In 1949, he emigrated to the United States and eventually settled in San Francisco, near the home of his son.

Djerassi graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Kenyon College (B.A. in organic chemistry, 1942). 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. (It is not clear whether the U.S. State Department asked him to surrender his Austrian passport—in wartime, it probably would—in any case, the Austrian government sent him a new one decades later, and also put his face on a postage stamp.)

In 1949, he was recruited to be the associate director of research at Syntex in Mexico City by then-technical director George Rosenkranz, and worked 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; then his team 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. (The term "the Pill" was first used by Aldous Huxley in his novel Brave New World. 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 from Wayne State.[1][2]

Since 1959, Djerassi has been a professor of chemistry at Stanford University and the president of Syntex Laboratories in Mexico City, Mexico, and later in 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 and swallowed by Occidental Petroleum: for a few years, Djerassi was on the board of directors of Occidental Petroleum. Zoecon's products were widely sold in the 1980's, but after 1990 had become hard to find.

The Syntex connection made him a rich man. With his wealth, 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 the musician Neil Young, whose band could sometimes be heard rehearsing from a few miles away.

With his second wife, Norma Lundholm, he had a son, Dale, who is a documentary filmmaker; and a daughter, Pamela, who grew up to become an artist. She was married to a doctor, who was doing a residency at Stanford. She suffered from chronic pain as well as depression, and took a fatal overdose of prescription drugs in July of 1978. After Pamela's suicide, Djerassi founded the Djerassi Resident Artists Program (DRAP) in her memory. Djerassi is currently married to biographer and Stanford professor emerita Diane Middlebrook. They live in San Francisco and London.

Djerassi had been 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 has bequeathed his entire Klee collection. (One Klee show at SFMOMA, ca 1990, which was drawn exclusively from Djerassi's collection, filled several large galleries: most of the exhibition space on the museum's second floor.) He stopped collecting when he founded DRAP, because he decided he'd rather patronize living artists than dead ones—or rather the art dealers and auctioneers who are the only beneficiaries of the immense appreciation in the value of works by dead artists. Dead visual artists get no royalties. Books, movies, and music earn royalties, which usually are shared with their creators, although publishers often get the lion's share. Art works can be copyrighted, but there is little money in them: Collectors pay millions of dollars for original works, but prints and photographs are not often published.[citation needed]

After his daughter's death, he and Middlebrook visited Florence and looked at the art works commissioned by the Medici. Middlebrook asked him: "What would have happened if they had supported women artists as well as men?" It was too late to help Pamela, but many other artists need what she needed: a place to work, fellow artists to share their work with, a partner who was not consumed by a medical school residency. Mentors who are not always many miles away. He makes these things possible for new generations of artists. Perhaps it beats sitting in Christie's and waving a paddle at the auctioneer, and spending his considerable fortune to buy a few more "lots" at record prices. DRAP has works exhibited by artists who made them there; other works go out and are performed around the world. Artists have married there; a baby was born there; artists have done their best work there. He has found a way to patronize the living and let the dead rest in peace.

Djerassi closed down the 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. He also bought a home in London. Djerassi and Middlebrook alternate between hemispheres about once a year.

Social impact of scientific work

Djerassi anticipated the social impact of the pill. He 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 favour of women in society as a whole.

Awards and honors

He 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, a few months later.

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."

Austria has issued a postage stamp with Djerassi's picture on it. The Austrian government also sent him a new Austrian passport. It is likely that Djerassi gave up his Austrian citizenship when he became a U.S. citizen (during World War II, but after he received the new passport, he definitely had dual citizenship. He was awarded the Austrian Cross of Honor for Art and Science, First Class in 1999.

Prof. Djerassi is a member of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists[3] and is chairman of the Pharmanex Scientific Advisory Board.[4]



Djerassi is one of the few authors to publish multiple autobiographies, along with Joan Baez and Dory Previn. At least two appear in this list:

  • 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 invented the genre called "Science-in-Fiction" to portray the lives of real scientists, with all their accomplishments, conflicts, and aspirations. It is not "Science fiction," set in the far future: it is about real people, living in our world now.

  • 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


  • Marks, Lara V (2004). Sexual Chemistry: A History Of The Contraceptive Pill. Diane Publishing Company. ISBN 0-300-08943-0. 
  • Tone, Andrea (2001). Devices and Desires. New York: Hill and Wang, A Division of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. ISBN 0-8090-3817-X. 


  1. ^ Djerassi, Carl (May 1, 1990). Steroids Made It Possible. An American Chemical Society Publication, 205. ISBN 0-8412-1773-4. 
  2. ^ Djerassi, Carl (April 1992). The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse. Basic Books, 336. ISBN 0-465-05759-4. 
  3. ^ Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Retrieved on 2006-10-23.
  4. ^ Carl Djerassi, Ph.D.. Pharmanews. Phamanex. Retrieved on 2006-12-17.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Carl_Djerassi". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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