Carl Djerassi

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Carl Djerassi
Carl Djerassi HD2004 AIC Gold Medal crop.JPG
Carl Djerassi,
recipient of the AIC Gold Medal, 2004
Born (1923-10-29)October 29, 1923
Vienna, Austria
Died January 30, 2015(2015-01-30) (aged 91)
San Francisco, California, United States
Nationality Austrian, American
Fields Chemistry
Known for synthesis of norethisterone, the first orally highly active progestin used in one of the first three oral contraceptive pills

Carl Djerassi (October 29, 1923 – January 30, 2015) was an Bulgarian, Austrian and American chemist, novelist, and playwright best known for his contribution to the development of oral contraceptive pills. He also on elucidated the structure of steroids, an area in which he published over 1,000 papers.[1]

He participated in the invention in 1951, together with Mexican Luis E. Miramontes and Mexican-Hungarian 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.

Djerassi is also the author of several novels in the "science-in-fiction" genre, including Cantor's Dilemma, in which he explores the ethics of modern scientific research through his protagonist, Dr. Cantor. He also wrote Chemistry in Theatre: Insufficiency, Phallacy or both which demonstrate the potential pedagogic value of using dialogic style and plot structure of plays with special focus on chemistry.

Early life[edit]

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

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.[2] His mother was Alice Friedmann, a Viennese dentist and physician. Both parents were Jewish.

Following his parents' divorce, Djerassi and his mother moved to Vienna. 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 and his mother to escape the Nazi regime and flee to Bulgaria, where he lived with his father for a year. During his time in Bulgaria, Djerassi attended the American College of Sofia where he learned fluent English. 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. In 1949, his father emigrated to the United States, practiced in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and eventually retired near his son in San Francisco.

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. After one year at CIBA, he moved to the University of Wisconsin where he earned his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1945.[2]


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

In 1949 Djerassi became associate director of research at Syntex in Mexico City and remained there through 1951. He worked on a new synthesis of cortisone based on diosgenin, a steroid sapogenin derived from a Mexican wild yam. His team later synthesized norethisterone (norethindrone), 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.

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. From 1968 until 1972 he also served as president of Syntex Research at Palo Alto. The Syntex connection brought wealth to Djerassi. He bought a large tract of land in Woodside, California, started a cattle ranch initially called SMIP (Syntex Made It Possible), and assembled a large art collection. In 1968, he started a new company, Zoecon, which focused on pest control, using modified insect growth hormones to stop insects from metamorphosing from the larval stage to the pupal and adult stages. 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.[3] This was a prototype for expert systems and one of the first uses of artificial intelligence in biomedical research.[3]

Djerassi was a member of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists[4] and was chairman of the Pharmanex Scientific Advisory Board.[5]

Personal life[edit]

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. [6] They divided their time between homes in San Francisco and London, until her death on 15 December 2007.[6]

On July 5, 1978, Djerassi's artist daughter Pamela (from his second marriage, to Norma Lundholm), committed suicide, which is described in a moving chapter in his autobiography. With Middlebrook's help, Djerassi then considered how he could help living artists, rather than collecting works of dead ones. He donated half of his Klee collection to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and half to the Albertina in Vienna, effective on his death. He visited existing artist colonies, such as Yaddo and MacDowell, and decided to create his own, the Djerassi Artists Residency. He closed his cattle ranch, converted the barn and houses to residential and work space for artists, and moved his home to a spectacular high rise in San Francisco that he and his wife had renovated. [7]

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

Djerassi died on January 30, 2015 at the age of 91 from complications of liver and bone cancer.[8][1]

Literary works[edit]


Djerassi wrote five novels, four of which he describes as "science-in-fiction",[9][10] fiction which portrays the lives of real scientists, with all their accomplishments, conflicts, and aspirations. The genre is also referred to as Lab lit.

In his first two novels, Cantors Dilemma and Bourbaki Gambit, he shows how scientists work and think. In Cantors Dilemma, there is the suspicion of scientific fraud; in Bourbaki Gambit the question of personal achievement stands in the center. In the third, Menachem's Seed, ICSI and the Pugwash organization are the main themes. In the last, NO, he shows how young scientists develop an idea as far as founding a company to market a product - something Djerassi himself has done 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. 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. 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. 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.” [11]

Djerassi’s first play, An Immaculate Misconception (1998), dealing with the in vitro fertilization procedure ICSI, was followed by two plays about priority struggles in the history of science, Oxygen (co-authored with Roald Hoffmann, 1999) and Calculus (2002), and a drama at the intersection of chemistry and art history, Phallacy (2004). Ego (2003, also produced under the title Three on a Couch), together with the docudrama Four Jews on Parnassus (2006, publ. 2008) and Foreplay (2010), 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; his 2012 play Insufficiency is a bitter satire of both the scientific community and academic environments.

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. 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. 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.

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. Djerassi has repeatedly revised his plays and some of them have different versions and multiple endings (especially "An Immaculate Misconception": the nationalities of the main characters vary, also the endings). If possible, Carl Djerassi also cooperates with directors in the production of dramatic performances. 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 had written numerous poems that had been 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).

Awards and honors[edit]

This article incorporates information from the equivalent article on the German Wikipedia.

Djerassi Glacier on Brabant Island in Antarctica is named after Carl Djerassi.[20]



  • Optical Rotatory Dispersion, McGraw-Hill & Company, 1960.
  • The Politics of Contraception, New York & London: W. W. Norton, 1979. ISBN 0-393-01264-6
  • Steroids Made it Possible, Washington, DC: 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 88-8323-086-8
  • This Man's Pill: Reflections on the 50th Birthday of the Pill, Oxford University Press, USA, 2004. ISBN 0-19-860695-8 (autobiography)
  • In Retrospect : From the Pill to the Pen, Imperial College Press, USA, 2014. ISBN 978-1783265329 (autobiography)




  • Chemistry in Theatre: Insufficiency, Phallacy or Both, Imperial College Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1-84816-937-1
  • Foreplay: Hannah Arendt, the Two Adornos, and Walter Benjamin, Madison: U Wisconsin P, 2011. ISBN 978-0-299-28334-6
  • Four Jews on Parnassus
  • An Immaculate Misconception: Sex in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction, London: Imperial College Press, 2000. ISBN 1-86094-248-2 (adapted from the novel Menachem's Seed)
  • Oxygen (with Roald Hoffmann, coauthor), Weinheim et al.: WILEY-VCH, 2001. ISBN 3-527-30413-4
  • Newton's Darkness: Two Dramatic Views, (with David Pinner, coauthor), London: Imperial College Press, 2004. ISBN 1-86094-390-X
  • Sex in an Age of Technological Reproduction: ICSI and TABOOS, Madison: U Wisconsin P, 2008. ISBN 978-0-299-22790-6


  • Gehrke, Ingrid (2008). Der intellektuelle Polygamist: Carl Djerassi's Grenzgänge in Autobiographie, Roman und Drama. Berlin et al.: Lit Verlag. ISBN 978-3-8258-1444-1. 
  • Grünzweig, Walter, ed. (2012). The SciArtist: Carl Djerassi's Science-in-Literature in Transatlantic and Interdisciplinary Contexts. Berlin et al.: Lit Verlag. ISBN 978-3-643-90231-3. 
  • 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, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0-8090-3817-X. 


  1. ^ a b Robert D. McFadden (January 31, 2015). "Carl Djerassi, 91, a Creator of the Birth Control Pill, Dies". New York Times. Retrieved 2015-01-31. Carl Djerassi, an eminent chemist who 63 years ago synthesized a hormone that changed the world by creating the key ingredient for the oral contraceptive known as “the pill,” died at his home in San Francisco on Friday. He was 91. His son, Dale, said the cause was complications of liver and bone cancer. ... 
  2. ^ a b c Weintraub, Bob. "Pincus, Djerassi and Oral Contraceptives", Chemistry in Israel, Bulletin of the Israel Chemical Society. August 2005, pp.47–50.
  3. ^ a b . (July 2011). "The Joshua Lederberg Papers: Computers, Artificial Intelligence, and Expert Systems in Biomedical Research". Profiles in Science. Bethesda, Md.: U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved August 2, 2011. 
  4. ^ "Board of Sponsors". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 
  5. ^ "Carl Djerassi, Ph.D.". Pharmanews. Phamanex. Retrieved 2006-12-17. 
  6. ^ a b Diane Middlebrook, professor emeritus and legendary biographer, dies at 68, Stanford University, 9 January 2008.
  7. ^ Richard Feynman at
  8. ^ "Carl Djerassi, Who Helped Discover Birth Control Pill, Dies at 91". January 31, 2015. 
  9. ^ Djerassi, Carl. "Science in Fiction". Retrieved 2008-12-19. 
  10. ^ Solon, Olivia (September 6, 2012). "Q&A: Co-Inventor of ‘The Pill’ Talks Art, Science and Chemistry". Wired UK. 
  11. ^ Andi Jordan, "Carl Djerassi's Science-in-Theatre Plays: The Theatrical Realization," in: Walter Grünzweig, ed., The SciArtist: Carl Djerassi's Science-in-Literature in Transatlantic and Interdisciplinary Contexts, Berlin et al.: Lit Verlag, 2012, p.119.
  12. ^ National Science Foundation - The President's National Medal of Science
  13. ^ National Inventors Hall of Fame
  14. ^ "Reply to a parliamentary question" (pdf) (in German). p. 1219. Retrieved 28 November 2012. 
  15. ^ Reisch, Marc (5 June 2000). "Carl Djerassi Receives Othmer Gold Medal". Chemical & Engineering News 78 (23): 79. doi:10.1021/cen-v078n023.p079. 
  16. ^ "Past Winners of the Othmer Gold Medal". Chemical Heritage Foundation. Retrieved 12 June 2014. 
  17. ^ "Reply to a parliamentary question" (pdf) (in German). p. 1833. Retrieved 28 November 2012. 
  18. ^ "Foreign Members". Royal Society. Retrieved 2012-03-20. 
  19. ^ "Pill inventor Carl Djerassi to receive Edinburgh Medal", BBC News, 8 April 2011.
  20. ^ Composite Gazetteer of Antarctica: Djerassi Glacier.

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