Lunch with the FT: Carl Djerassi
By Nina-Anne Kaye
Published: January 23 2004 18:55 | Last Updated: January 23 2004 18:55

Professor Carl Djerassi has asked me to meet him at his flat in London's Maida Vale so that I can see some of his books before we go to lunch.

It is difficult to know on which angle of Djerassi to focus - playwright, organic chemist, collector of modern art, philanthropist - or as refugee who has lived the American dream. Most people know him as inventor of the Pill, but that was 50 years ago. Life goes on.

"I hope you have had a chance to look at my website," he says. "It gives you a lot of background." A practised publicist, Djerassi zealously regards his writing as the only way to enlighten the public on the workings and mentality of the closed, introverted world of research science.

"We are the most egocentric people of them all - it's really a tribal culture of which I am a fully paid-up member," he says. "The environment drives you. It's ambition - bottomless ambition, and it's probably a feature that characterises most significant scientists. I do put myself in that category, not because of the Pill as you may think, but I've done a hell of a lot of other things which from a scientific standpoint were much more significant, not just for science but for chemistry."

Some 1,200 papers testify to the fact that he is the author of many ground-breaking chemical discoveries. However, his novels and plays, as well as poems, short stories and memoirs, come from a genuine desire to proselytise, to embrace the wider world and to educate through what he calls "science in fiction". "I do consider myself more an author who is a scientist rather than the other way round."

We head for the restaurant. He is sprightly and dapper. When we arrive he takes my coat and remarks of my clothes: "Ah, mauve - my previous wife used to love that colour. We had a whole room in it." He has chosen a Moroccan delicatessen; we sit by the window.

He speaks fast, fluently, in mellifluous American Austro-Hungarian. As someone who has just turned 80 - and he does not care to be reminded of the fact - he is a man still in a terrible hurry. "I don't have enough time. It's an obsession, a phobia, an absurd, idiotic yet strangely exhilarating feeling. People say this guy is nuts." It started after a cancer operation in his early sixties when he stopped thinking he was immortal, "as young people do".

Based at Stanford University in California for the past 44 years and now Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, he is in London to speak on "sex in an age of mechanical reproduction". But he'll tell me about that once we have ordered our food.

His latest published opus, Calculus, appears in a volume containing two plays about Isaac Newton (the other, Newton's Hooke, is by David Pinner, a playwright who specialises in weighty historical figures). The plays explore Newton's disputes with his contemporaries Robert Hooke and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Djerassi's play focuses on Leibniz's charge that Newton had plagiarised "his" calculus and exposes Newton's scandalous manipulation of a Royal Society committee to pervert the adjudication.

"Newton interested me for various reasons, first his extremely flawed character which was far, far worse than I realised but, over and above that, what is the nature of discovery? Is it the person who discovers first, the person who publishes first, or the person who understands it first? If you're on the Pill you don't care who discovered it, you want it to work. But for scientists it is of supreme importance - it's a testosterone that fuels us."

I suggest it might be time to eat. He turns to the restaurant owner: "Let's assume that we are Guide Michelin inspectors, that we are going to have different things and we are going to taste each other's, but in this case you know the inspectors are already here. So two sets of cutlery for everything please." Seamlessly, he carries on telling me about past liaisons and his three wives.

He married Virginia, his first wife, when he was 19. "I was a virgin, and it was the easiest way you could get sex." He smiles fondly. The current Mrs Djerassi, Diane Middlebrook, the love of his life, and professor of English at Stanford, is his sternest critic. When, before their marriage, she went off with a "younger literary type for about a year", he wrote a novel to woo her back - in a bitter, self-pitying, humourless, macho, vengeful mood, as he puts it. It worked.

It was she who advised him not to embark on the theme of a man obsessed by his obituary, central to his latest play Three on a Couch. So he promptly did - and the result opens at London's King's Head Theatre in March.

Surely he doesn't worry what people think about him? "I don't seek approbation, I seek validation. As a scientist you can't survive without it," he explains.

But as a person?

"I am very receptive to constructive criticism. It's the buts that interest me. It's what I call productive insecurity; I use it in the play and it defines Carl Djerassi."

The food arrives. We share the dishes, as he has requested. They pass between us but Djerassi is concerned that the chicken stew is not hot enough. We stir it, which seems to solve the problem.

About 10 years after the Pill, Djerassi concluded that his ambition-driven research was not the way forward, so he inaugurated a biomedical ethics course at Stanford. This was the first time that human biology and feminist studies were taught together, and allowed students a forum to discuss ethics. Here his writing started.

"There's not enough truly informed choice." Djerassi believes there should be contraceptive supermarkets: "the Pill isn't ideal for everyone - where's the Pill for men or reversible vasectomies?" Lack of advance in this field is a great disappointment to him.

Djerassi's first play, Immaculate Misconception, dealt with ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection). "It's the next step on from the Pill. You can choose a precise time to conceive." Ideally, young women are vaccinated in puberty to be rendered infertile after they have stored all their young eggs for ICSI conception in later life. That way - no biological clock, no babies from old eggs, no contraception, no abortions and no unwanted children. Most people have sex thousands of times, so sex is divorced from reproduction even now... ICSI is an option - part of the supermarket."

Isn't that Orwellian?

"Male sterilisation in the USA is extremely popular. It just needs to happen younger. Hence the need to talk about it in schools."

It was through his interest in steroid chemistry that Djerassi made a progestational hormone that could be used as a contraceptive, but his empowerment of women sits very comfortably with his love of them. "I call myself a male feminist. The recurring theme in my writing is the role of women in male-dominated disciplines.

"And yes, I care passionately about women: literally, it's the possibility of carnal knowledge - not the acquisition of it - that has always been a powerful attraction. In my thirties I became aware of everyone's androgynous nature. Some men won't admit that they have a picogram of oestrogen and are ashamed and embarrassed. I never am. I like womanly aspects of male behaviour."

His roots have begun to kick in. "For years I would never admit my Jewish background. People overcome it by disappearing - it's the natural defence mechanism of someone who flees as a European Jewish refugee, which I certainly am. It is imprinted.

"But it changes: you become securer, or you realise that it's cowardly. Before I returned to Austria in 1991, I thought my European roots were buried. They've come back through rediscovering my first language, which I hadn't spoken for 50 years. But I spent my most formative years in Vienna, and old ghosts are never laid to rest. Once you've been kicked out you're always homeless. It's a restlessness that enables me to be as comfortable in San Francisco as in London."

I have to ask whether he feels disappointed at not yet having won a Nobel Prize, only to be told that I'm the thousandth person to have posed the question. "Would you ask an actor whether he was disappointed at not having won an Oscar? Sure I'd like to get it - I have been nominated many times. But for the Pill, in what field would you award it - Chemistry, Medicine or Peace Prize? But as I said, it's not my most important contribution. Though if you mean influence, then yes, it was the Pill."

Although Djerassi acknowledges the immense benefits and changes his most famous invention has wrought, he is remarkably nonchalant. He maintains that most scientists are surrogates, their discoveries being coincidences if the time is ripe.

"What has been my most important contribution is the introduction of new physical methods to change the direction in which organic chemistry is practised. It is being used by thousands. I've done a lot of work on optical auditory dispersion, mass spectrometry, the use of computer artificial intelligence techniques through approaches in organic chemistry, but these are methodological things... " He tails off, "but these would mean little to you."

I ask for the bill.

Nina-Anne Kaye is a freelance writer

Amoul

14 Formosa St, London W1

1 x starter

1 x chicken casserole

1 x ratatouille

1 x lamb shank soup

1 x Turkish coffee

2 x mint tea

Total: 24.70