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
Vienna, Austria
Died January 30, 2015(2015-01-30) (aged 91)
San Francisco, California, United States
Fields Chemistry
Alma mater
Known for

Carl Djerassi (October 29, 1923 – January 30, 2015) was an Austrian-born Bulgarian-American chemist, novelist, and playwright best known for his contribution to the development of oral contraceptive pills.[1][2][3]

Early life[edit]

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.[4][5] His mother was Alice Friedmann, a Viennese dentist and physician. Both parents were Jewish.[1]

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;[6] he spent summers in Bulgaria with his father.[7]

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.[7]

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.


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.[7] After one year at CIBA, he moved to the University of Wisconsin–Madison where he earned his Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1945.[5] His thesis work examined the transformation of the male sex hormone testosterone into the female sex hormone estradiol, through a sequence of chemical reactions.[8]


In 1942/43, Djerassi worked for CIBA in New Jersey, developing Pyribenzamine[7] (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.[7] He has said that one factor influencing him to choose Syntex was that they had a DU spectrophotometer.[9] He worked on a new synthesis of cortisone based on diosgenin, a steroid sapogenin derived from a Mexican wild yam.[10] His team later synthesized norethisterone[11] (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.[7]

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.[12]

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,[7] a position he held until 2002 [13] 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.[7]

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.[6][14] 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.[15]

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.[16] 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.[16]

In 1968, he started a new company, Zoecon,[7] 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.[17] 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.[18] This was a prototype for expert systems and one of the first uses of artificial intelligence in biomedical research.[18]

Djerassi was a member of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists[19] and was chairman of the Pharmanex Scientific Advisory Board.[20]


Djerassi published widely as a novelist, playwright and scientist.[21][22][23][24] 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."[7][16] He went on to write several novels in the "science-in-fiction" genre, including Cantor's Dilemma,[25] 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.[16] He wrote a number of plays which have been performed and extensively translated.[26][27] 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.[28]


Djerassi wrote five novels, four of which he describes as "science-in-fiction",[29][30] fiction which portrays the lives of real scientists, with all their accomplishments, conflicts, and aspirations. The genre is also referred to as Lab lit.[31]

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.[32] In the third, Menachem's Seed, ICSI and the Pugwash organization are the main themes.[33] In the last, NO, he shows how young scientists develop an idea as far as founding a company to market a product[34] - 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.[35] 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.[27] 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.[26] 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.” [36]

Djerassi’s first play, An Immaculate Misconception (1998), dealing with the in vitro fertilization procedure ICSI,[37] was followed by two plays about priority struggles in the history of science, Oxygen (co-authored with Roald Hoffmann, 1999)[38] and Calculus (2002),[39] and a drama at the intersection of chemistry and art history, Phallacy (2004).[40] Ego (2003, also produced under the title Three on a Couch),[41] together with the docudrama Four Jews on Parnassus (2006, publ. 2008)[42] and Foreplay (2010),[26] 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;[43] his 2012 play Insufficiency is a bitter satire of both the scientific community and academic environments.[27]

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.[44] 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.[45] 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).[46] 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.[41]

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.[27] Djerassi repeatedly revised his plays and some of them have different versions and multiple endings[47] (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.[48] 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).[49][50][51]


  • Optical Rotatory Dispersion, McGraw-Hill & Company, 1960.
  • The Politics of Contraception[52]
  • Steroids Made it Possible[53]
  • The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse[54]
  • From the Lab into The World: A Pill for People, Pets, and Bugs[55]
  • Paul Klee: Masterpieces of the Djerassi Collection[56]
  • Dalla pillola alla penna[57]
  • This Man's Pill: Reflections on the 50th Birthday of the Pill[58]
  • In Retrospect : From the Pill to the Pen[59]


  • Cantor's Dilemma[25]
  • The Bourbaki Gambit[60]
  • The Futurist and Other Stories[61]
    • How I Beat Coca-Cola and Other Tales of One-Upmanship[62]
  • Marx, Deceased. A Novel[63]
  • Menachem's Seed. A Novel[64]
    • Menachem's Seed[65]
  • NO. A Novel[66]


  • Chemistry in Theatre: Insufficiency, Phallacy or Both[68]
  • Foreplay: Hannah Arendt, the Two Adornos, and Walter Benjamin[69]
  • Four Jews on Parnassus
  • An Immaculate Misconception: Sex in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction[70]
    • L.A. Theatre Works[71]
  • Oxygen (with Roald Hoffmann, coauthor)[72]
  • Newton's Darkness: Two Dramatic Views[73]
  • Sex in an Age of Technological Reproduction: ICSI and TABOOS[74]

Awards and honors[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.

Djerassi won numerous awards during his career including:

Djerassi Glacier on Brabant Island in Antarctica is named after Carl Djerassi.[87]

An award that eluded Djerassi was the Nobel Prize, where he is considered one of the more notable "snubs" by the Nobel Committee.[88]

Personal life[edit]

Djerassi was married three times. He and Virginia Jeremiah were married in 1943 and divorced in 1950.[89] Djerassi married Norma Lundholm later that year. They had two children, and were divorced in 1976.[90]

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.[91] They divided their time between homes in San Francisco and London, until her death on 15 December 2007.[91]

On July 5, 1978, Djerassi's artist daughter Pamela (from his second marriage, to Norma Lundholm), committed suicide,[92][93] 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 Artists Residency.[6][14] He closed his cattle ranch and converted the barn and houses to residential and work space for artists.[94][95] 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.[96]

Djerassi died on January 30, 2015 at the age of 91 from complications of liver and bone cancer.[1][97]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Robert D. McFadden (January 31, 2015). "Carl Djerassi, 91, a Creator of the Birth Control Pill, Dies". New York Times. Retrieved January 31, 2015. 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 Ball P (2015) "Carl Djerassi", Nature 519(7541), 34.
  3. ^ a b Zare, R. N. (2015). "Carl Djerassi (1923-2015)". Angewandte Chemie International Edition: n/a. doi:10.1002/anie.201501335. 
  4. ^ "Carl Djerassi, father of the Pill - obituary", The Telegraph, February 2, 2015.
  5. ^ a b c Weintraub, Bob. "Pincus, Djerassi and Oral Contraceptives", Chemistry in Israel, Bulletin of the Israel Chemical Society. August 2005, pp. 47–50.
  6. ^ a b c Wood, Gaby (April 14, 2007). "Father of the pill". The Guardian. Retrieved February 4, 2015. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Interview with Carl Djerassi, July 31, 1985". Oral History Program, Chemical Heritage Foundation. Retrieved February 2, 2015.  External link in |work= (help)
  8. ^ "Percy Lavon Julian, Russell Earl Marker, and Carl Djerassi". Chemical Heritage Foundation. Retrieved February 2, 2015. 
  9. ^ Board on Physics and Astronomy, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (2006). Instrumentation for a better tomorrow: proceedings of a symposium in honor of Arnold Beckman. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. ISBN 978-0-309-10116-5. Retrieved May 28, 2015. 
  10. ^ Rosenkranz, George (2005). "The Early Days of Syntex" (PDF). Chemical Heritage Magazine 23 (2): 8–13. Retrieved February 2, 2015. 
  11. ^ Djerassi, C.; Miramontes, L.; Rosenkranz, G.; Sondheimer, F. (1954). "Steroids. LIV.1Synthesis of 19-Nov-17α-ethynyltestosterone and 19-Nor-17α-methyltestosterone2". Journal of the American Chemical Society 76 (16): 4092. doi:10.1021/ja01645a010. 
  12. ^ Hayman, Suzie (February 1, 2015). "Carl Djerassi obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 February 2015. 
  13. ^ Arnold, Laurence (31 January 2015). "Carl Djerassi, Chemist Behind Birth-Control Pill, Dies at 91". Bloomberg. 
  14. ^ a b "Djerassi Resident Artists Program". Retrieved February 4, 2015. 
  15. ^ "Albertina's Modern Holdings Deepened by Transfer of Batliner Collection". Art Tattler International. Retrieved February 4, 2015. 
  16. ^ a b c d Reinhardt, Carsten. "CHF Remembers Carl Djerassi". Chemical Heritage Foundation. Retrieved February 2, 2015. 
  17. ^ Wells, Ken (2003). Herd on the street: animal stories from the Wall Street journal. New York: Free Press. pp. 233–244. ISBN 9780743254205. 
  18. ^ 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. 
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  20. ^ "Carl Djerassi, Ph.D.". Pharmanews. Phamanex. Retrieved December 17, 2006. 
  21. ^ 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. 
  22. ^ 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. 
  23. ^ Marks, Lara V. (2004). Sexual Chemistry: A History Of The Contraceptive Pill. Diane Publishing Company. ISBN 0-300-08943-0. 
  24. ^ Tone, Andrea (2001). Devices and Desires. New York: Hill and Wang, A Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0-8090-3817-X. 
  25. ^ a b Cantor's Dilemma, Penguin, 1989. ISBN 0-14-014359-9
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  30. ^ Solon, Olivia (September 6, 2012). "Q&A: Co-Inventor of ‘The Pill’ Talks Art, Science and Chemistry". Wired UK. 
  31. ^ Bouton, Katherine (December 3, 2012). "In Lab Lit, Fiction Meets Science of the Real World". The New York Times: D2. 
  32. ^ "The Bourbaki Gambit". University of Georgia Press. Retrieved 2 February 2015. 
  33. ^ Smith, Phililp (1997). "Pugwash, thinly disguised". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 53 (6): 57–58. Retrieved February 2, 2015. 
  34. ^ Djerassi, Carl (November 4, 2013). "Carl Djerassi: 'I, a feminist father of the Pill, foresee no male Pill'". Wired Science. Retrieved February 2, 2015. 
  35. ^ "'Marx, Deceased' by Carl Djerassi (Review)". Kirkus Reviews. August 2, 1996. Retrieved February 2, 2015. 
  36. ^ 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.
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  38. ^ Zare, Richard N. (October 3, 2001). "Play co-authored by Carl Djerassi offers caricature of Nobel Prize selection process". Stanford Report. Retrieved 2 February 2015. 
  39. ^ Campos, Liliane (August 9, 2004). "Examining Newton's darker side". Physics World. Retrieved February 2, 2015. 
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  45. ^ Priest, Susanna Hornig, ed. (2010). "Science Theater". Encyclopedia of science and technology communication. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE. p. 742. ISBN 978-1412959209. Retrieved February 2, 2015. 
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  48. ^ Calamia, Donald V. (September 1, 2005). "Curtain Calls". Between the Lines News. Retrieved 2 February 2015. 
  49. ^ McNamee, Dardis (June 19, 2012). "Carl Djerassi: The Poet of Progressive Science". The Vienna Review. Retrieved February 2, 2015. 
  50. ^ The Clock Runs Backwards, Brownsville, OR: Story Line Press, 1991. ISBN 0-934257-75-2
  51. ^ A Diary of Pique/ Tagebuch des Grolls, Haymon Verlag, Innsbruck, 2012. ISBN 978-3-85218-719-8
  52. ^ The Politics of Contraception, New York & London: W. W. Norton, 1979. ISBN 0-393-01264-6
  53. ^ Steroids Made it Possible, Washington, DC: American Chemical Society, 1990. ISBN 0-8412-1773-4 (autobiography)
  54. ^ The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse, Basic Books, 1992. ISBN 0-465-05758-6 (autobiography)
  55. ^ From the Lab into The World: A Pill for People, Pets, and Bugs, American Chemical Society, 1994. ISBN 0-8412-2808-6
  56. ^ Paul Klee: Masterpieces of the Djerassi Collection, (coeditor), Prestel Publishing, 2002. ISBN 3-7913-2779-8
  57. ^ Dalla pillola alla penna, Di Renzo Editore, 2004. ISBN 88-8323-086-8
  58. ^ This Man's Pill: Reflections on the 50th Birthday of the Pill, Oxford University Press, USA, 2004. ISBN 0-19-860695-8 (autobiography)
  59. ^ In Retrospect : From the Pill to the Pen, Imperial College Press, USA, 2014. ISBN 978-1783265329 (autobiography)
  60. ^ The Bourbaki Gambit, Penguin, 1994. ISBN 0-14-025485-4
  61. ^ The Futurist and Other Stories, London & Sydney: Macdonald, 1989. ISBN 0-356-17500-6
  62. ^ How I Beat Coca-Cola and Other Tales of One-Upmanship, Madison: Terrace Books/U Wisconsin P, 2013. ISBN 978-0-299-29504-2
  63. ^ Marx, Deceased. A Novel, Athens & London: U of Georgia P, 1996. ISBN 0-8203-1835-3
  64. ^ Menachem's Seed. A Novel, Athens & London: U Georgia P, 1997. ISBN 0-8203-1925-2
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  66. ^ NO. A Novel, Athens & London: The U of Georgia P, 1998. ISBN 0-8203-2032-3
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  68. ^ Chemistry in Theatre: Insufficiency, Phallacy or Both, Imperial College Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1-84816-937-1
  69. ^ Foreplay: Hannah Arendt, the Two Adornos, and Walter Benjamin, Madison: U Wisconsin P, 2011. ISBN 978-0-299-28334-6
  70. ^ 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)
  71. ^ L.A. Theatre Works, Audio Theatre Collection CD, 2004. ISBN 1-58081-286-4
  72. ^ Oxygen (with Roald Hoffmann, coauthor), Weinheim et al.: WILEY-VCH, 2001. ISBN 3-527-30413-4
  73. ^ Newton's Darkness: Two Dramatic Views, (with David Pinner, coauthor), London: Imperial College Press, 2004. ISBN 1-86094-390-X
  74. ^ Sex in an Age of Technological Reproduction: ICSI and TABOOS, Madison: U Wisconsin P, 2008. ISBN 978-0-299-22790-6
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  77. ^ National Inventors Hall of Fame
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  87. ^ Composite Gazetteer of Antarctica: Djerassi Glacier.
  88. ^ What Are the Unwritten Rules of Winning a Nobel Prize? October 9, 2015 (published & accessed).
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  92. ^ A Conversation with Carl Djerassi on Vimeo interviewed by Roger Kornberg, Annual Review of Biochemistry
  93. ^ Carl Djerassi, Desert Island Disks, BBC Radio 4
  94. ^ King, John (September 7, 2011). "Diane Middlebrook Memorial Writers' Residences". SFGate. Retrieved 4 February 2015. 
  95. ^ "Cass Calder Smith's Bold New Cabins at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program". Architectural Digest. June 8, 2012. Retrieved 4 February 2015. 
  96. ^ Sutton, Ron (2005). "A Slick Distribution Plan for 'Oil on Ice'". IDA. International Documentary Association. Retrieved 4 February 2015. 
  97. ^ "Carl Djerassi, Who Helped Discover Birth Control Pill, Dies at 91". January 31, 2015. 

External links[edit]