The Pill Made It Possible
His role, a half-century ago, as leader of the team that invented the Pill, made it possible for chemist Carl Djerassi to devote the latter part of his life to writing novels and plays
Heidi Kingstone London
Carl Djerassi is watching the production of his newly opened play, "Phallacy," with great intensity. White-haired and bearded, he's sitting on one of the uncomfortable backless seats at a small pub-theater in North London, repeatedly removing his glasses and putting them on again. On this late-spring evening, most of London is watching an important soccer game on TV, but a number of people have ventured out to the King's Head in the chic, if relentlessly soulless, area of Islington, a gentrified borough in north London, and the tiny theater is about three-quarters full.
Djerassi has been known for the past 50 years as "The Father of The Pill," for his role in developing the oral contraceptive, but has transformed himself from chemist to writer over the last decade and a half. A Viennese-born Jew who fled to the United States when he was 15, in 1939, he led a small team of chemists based in Mexico City in the synthesis of "the Pill" in 1951. He had been invited there by a small Mexican company called Syntex, which was involved in a race to synthesize cortisone, whose beneficial effects had only recently been discovered.
What Djerassi's team ended up synthesizing and making deliverable orally was progesterone, another steroid, whose ability to prevent pregnancy was already known to science. Since Syntex was involved in research rather than production and sales, it sold the rights to American drug giants Johnson & Johnson and Parke-Davis, who needed nearly a decade to bring the pill to market. A short time later, aged only 28, Djerassi was offered an associate professorship at Detroit's Wayne State University. And in 1959 he moved to Stanford, where he is still emeritus professor.
Djerassi eschews the term "renaissance man" - "nobody would sleep with one," he explains - with which people try to label him. "It's too pretentious," he adds. He would, however, agree that he is an "intellectual polygamist" and it's clear to all that he is a frighteningly prodigious one. For one thing, he writes plays, of which "Phallacy" is his latest. It takes place in Vienna, from which Djerassi fled Hitler's Anschluss, and deals with a bunch of themes that are emblematic for the 81-year- old: the convergence of art and science, ego, chemistry, Austria, Paul Klee, love and sex, for starters.
The play was inspired by actual events. In 1986, chemical analysis proved that a beautiful classical statue, "The Youth from Mt. Magdalene," in the Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna, for centuries judged to be a Roman original, was a 16th-century copy. In the play, Djerassi pits a defensive female curator, whose reputation has been staked on her study of the statue, against the feisty male scientist whose tests have convinced him the bronze is much newer than previously thought. In what way, asks "Phallacy," does the re-attribution diminish its beauty?
As a child, Djerassi was shuttled between Sofia, his father's home, and Vienna, the birthplace of his mother. His parents, both physicians, divorced early, but remarried after Hitler's rise to power, staying together just long enough for his mother to get Bulgarian citizenship. Carl went with his father to Bulgaria, while his mother went on to London to arrange passage to the U.S., to which she and the son sailed a year later, by which time the war was underway. The boy would not see his father for another decade.
Because of an injury sustained in a teenage skiing accident (he still has a limp today), Djerassi failed his physical for the U.S. army, which made it possible for him to head straight for college. And such was his belief in the New World that when that time came, he wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt, saying he needed money for tuition and living expenses, assuming the president's wife would make it possible. And she did. "One day, I got a letter from her secretary saying that I had a fellowship" for school.
Djerassi attended Kenyon College, in Ohio, and then pursued his PhD at the University of Wisconsin, earning it in 1945.
His first job was in New Jersey, at Ciba, then one of the pioneers in steroid research. The job at Syntex followed, in 1949. In 1968, he founded his own company, Zoecon, which used some of the principles involved in creating the Pill to develop new methods of insect control, while continuing at Syntex, of which he eventually became president of research.
Although he was paid only $1 for the contraceptive patent, as is the norm in the pharmaceutical industry, the invention of the Pill made Djerassi, who owned stock in the company, a wealthy man. It also brought some of the highest honors a chemist can win, the National Medal of Science, in 1978, and the Israeli Wolf Prize in Chemistry, five years later.
He has published some 1,200 scientific papers, has received 20 honorary doctorates, and, earlier this year, was honored by his native Austria with a postage stamp bearing his image. And this month, he was scheduled to head to Rome to pick up the Serono Prize for fiction that bridges science and the humanities, for the Italian translation of his 1996 novel, "The Bourbaki Gambit." The second of what he calls his "science-in-fiction" tetrology, the book is loosely based on the true story of "Nicolas Bourbaki," the identity given by a group of mathematicians in the 1930s to an imaginary French mathematician in whose name they collectively published a number of essential treatises.
Djerassi changed careers about 15 years ago because, he says, he wanted "to lead another intellectual life." That was possible, he explains, because, "in writing, starting late is an advantage, you have more ideas for storytelling. Otherwise, in this world you need to be young."
Since 1986, Djerassi has owned an apartment in London, where he finds himself spending increasing amounts of time. He no longer hangs out with the scientists - "intellectual monogamists" - who had constituted his social network in California, but with the writers and journalists who come to his spacious flat in Little Venice, a grand, leafy section of West London. He lives there with his third wife, retired Stanford professor and writer Diane Middlebrook, author of a biography of Anne Sexton, and a book on the marriage of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.
Djerassi rejects completely the conventional wisdom that the Pill was responsible for the promiscuity and permissiveness of the 60s and 70s. "It was a hippie culture, a drug culture, a rock 'n' roll culture, the beginning of women's liberation, and the same thing would have happened with or without the Pill. It was more the facilitator."
He is happy that the Pill made it possible for sex and reproduction to be separated from one another, saying that it took the moral hyprocrisy out of sex. And he unquestionably feels that the Pill helped liberate women, though he suggests that in the end, whether or not they chose to be sexual beings is an individual choice. On the other hand, he laments that men - and in this context he means liberated, reasonable men - now feel contraception is the sole responsibility of women: "It's the only area in the reproductive process in which men could play a role, and most don't."
The scientist's obsession with being the first to make - and publish - a discovery is a subject that has preoccupied Djerassi both as chemist and as writer. If you don't win the "gold medal," there is nothing else. Scientists, he explains, in an accent that is three parts Austrian, one part American, are obsessed with name recognition because they are "quite unimportant in contrast to other creative people. Only Shakespeare could have written his plays, but at some point someone else would have made each scientific discovery." Even his. "You couldn't care less who made the Pill, but to me it's extremely important. If I hadn't made it, someone else would have. The most striking example is DNA, which many people consider the most significant biological discovery of our century. If Watson and Crick hadn't published their work, three months later someone else would have - but [today] no one even knows who those people are. They are both hugely significant and hugely insignificant."
"Science," he says, "is a totally vertical enterprise, completely dependent on the work of others. If people didn't publish, you would have to reinvent the wheel each time."
Of course, science is not just about adding to humanity's body of knowledge; there's a lot of ego involved too. One of the main purposes of his writing, he says, "is to question the argument that scientific research is always done for the sake of science." After all, he asks, what made the discovery of the pill possible? "An arrogant chemist," he quips.
Perhaps the seeming need to prove himself comes from a native insecurity brought on by being a refugee, something Djerassi calls "implicit homelessness." For many years, he didn't hide his roots, but, like many others who went through that traumatic era, he was never comfortable broadcasting his Jewishness.
All that has changed. When he travels to Austria and Germany, something he does frequently now, whether to lecture or to oversee a production of one of his plays, he makes a point of letting people know about his Jewish background, and that he didn't leave but was thrown out. He says he identifies with Judaism in a completely European, secular way. "It's a burden but not one I'm prepared to shed or change."
Life in London is comfortable not only because it's a convenient place from which to wander the world, but also, these days, because it offers Djerassi refuge from George Bush's America. "My main objection is what is happening in the social context. The poor get poorer and the rich get richer. It is the leitmotif of contemporary American society, in which there is an enormous lack of compassion."
He enjoys working in the city. At Stanford, he had the family ranch in the Santa Cruz mountains, 50 minutes south of San Francisco. He called it SMIP Ranch, originally an acronym for "Syntex Made It Possible," but in the 70s, while the Vietnam War raged, decided the name stood for the Latin "Sic Manebimus in Pace" - "Thus We'll Remain in Peace." (Djerassi says he's thought of 40 different variations on the acronym, including, "See Me in Private" and "Sexy Man Invents Pill.") Today, his son, Dale, a documentary filmmaker, occupies half of the ranch, and the other half continues to serve as an artists colony that Carl Djerassi established in 1979, the year after his artist daughter, Pamela, committed suicide, at age 28. Her father sold off pieces from his own substantial art collection to fund the colony in her memory, and to date it has hosted some 1,500 artists.
Djerassi insists that today he is "a playwright not a scientist, that's what preoccupies me." His newest project is a play he calls "When Harriet Met Sally," about a lesbian couple who decide to have children, each with the other's brother. Its themes are about the changing meaning of parenting and marriage, both words that were once unambiguous. "Now, they have all sorts of meanings. You used to assume that marriage was between two people of opposite sexes. This is no longer the case,"
In his last play before "Phallacy," "Ego," Djerassi addressed the idea of reading one's own obituary. "I admit that I have dreamt about the attractiveness of being a fly on the wall and seeing what people really think about me." Only then, he suggests, would he know the real truth about himself. Perhaps that would finally settle Carl Djerassi's apparent need for validation, even though there has long existed more than adequate proof of his accomplishments and contributions as a scientist, novelist, thinker and playwright.
The Jerusalem Report, July 25, 2005 issue