Why do you believe there will never be a male contraception pill?
The nature of the pharmaceutical industry. The only markets that interest them are the aging population in Western Europe, Japan and North America. Contraception is not on their radar -- Alzheimer's and cancer are. People who take drugs for these are willing to tolerate quite a number of side effects depending on the severity of the disease, whereas people who take contraceptives are not willing to tolerate any side effects. You're also talking about something that a man would take for many years. "If I take my pill for 20, 40 years, can I still have a child after that?" Well, you can't answer that by doing clinical experiments for one or two years. You have to do a large group of people for 10 years. The patent life of a compound only lasts for 20 years so you're going to cannibalize the position of your invention by doing this. That's another reason pharmaceutical companies won't touch a male contraceptive.
How did your work in birth control lead to inventing insect repellent?
We wanted to come up with something that wouldn't be a poison that would harm humans in higher doses. The real pill was based on a hint from biology. Progesterone namely. Women do not get pregnant during pregnancy. We tried to develop a compound that mimics that biological activity. Well, the same thing about insects. What we did was develop agents based on a hormone that exists in insects, but not higher species. Insects produce a hormone during their juvenile state that keeps them juvenile. Later on, insects produce another hormone that allows them to mature. We decided, "Why not use the juvenile hormone for insect control?" The insect won't get killed, but they can't reproduce. It would be like human birth control by stopping people from aging beyond puberty. Our approach was designed for insects that do their damage in their adult stage like flies, mosquitoes, fleas and cockroaches.
In the 1980s, many people romanticized tribal societies. No tribal society invented a birth control pill, did they?
You're completely wrong. For thousands of years in China and India and pre-Colombian Mexico [people used] hundreds and hundred of plants or indigenous medicine. The three most popular uses were to control fertility, or to promote fertility or [laughs] to cure stomach upsets. [Pause.] The ones that controlled fertility worked because the chemicals would cause in one way or another an abortion.
What is the response by scientists to your dramatic work?
It's mixed. One has to be honest about this. Scientists are a broader group than chemists. Chemists are my own tribe, so to speak. They are the most conservative, and read more than any of the others. Lots of them haven't read what I write and have only heard about it and consider it trivial. That's one segment. The second segment is impressed. The third segment is jealous. And the fourth is the most interesting -- the ones who read seriously and ask me, "Do you find it necessary to wash dirty lab coats in public?"
The thing about you I'm most impressed with is that you made Nixon's "enemies" list.
That's one of my biggest awards, I agree. Within a week or 10 days, I appeared at the White House and he gave me the Medal of Science for contraceptives. The San Francisco paper had a very amusing headline, "Nixon Gives Medal to Enemy.'"
This is a final question. Your book and Web site imply that you are a lady's man. Are you?
You're not going to get an answer from me. First of all, you have to define "lady's man" for me. And "lady's man" for many people invariably implies superficiality and exploitation. I don't consider myself an exploiter of women. Do I like women? Women are much more important to me than men. In my last 20, 30 years, I've hardly made any male friends, but made lots of new women friends. And friend is not just a surrogate for sexual partner. But the additional factor of sexual attraction -- [Pause.] I'm just an ordinary heterosexual person to whom the opposite sex applies, so the possibility let us say of sexual attraction, even confirmation, is an extra bonus in these relations. I will not admit to being a Casanova or Don Juan or someone just going around counting his female conquests.
I always thought a lady's man had a certain urbane wit.
But only women can tell you that, not men. That kind of lady's man I wouldn't mind being called, but I cannot possibly tell you whether I am that because I am clearly not that for some women, and I am quite obviously that for some women. I know that because I know those women. [Pause.] But in a more general sense, you'd have to ask women, not me.