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Examined Life: Carl Djerassi 1923-2015

'A Phenomenon of Nature'

A prolific provocateur, he acknowledged his flaws but would brook no limitations on his scientific and literary ambitions.

Photo: Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service

Djerassi in 1991

Take a look at your medicine cabinet. You might find anti-itch cream, for rashes and skin irritation. An antihistamine to help you bear allergy season. Perhaps there’s the Pill—you’re taking birth control. And you have pets, so there’s a flea collar.

Carl Djerassi isn’t quite a household name, but his contributions to science made each of those products possible. His work affects the daily lives of millions.

Djerassi was a chemist and professor, an entrepreneur and executive, a novelist and playwright. He knew his own mind and he spoke it, often forcefully. He worked seven days a week. With gravitas, a fierce intellect and illimitable curiosity, Djerassi changed chemistry, literature and society. He came to Stanford’s chemistry department in 1959, took emeritus status in 2002 and remained in the community until his death on January 30. He was 91.

Djerassi was a man with a thesis. He believed that chemistry is the hub of all science—the block on which the study of biology, material science or physics should be built—but that its study alone, without interdisciplinary connections, is narrow-minded.

His belief in intellectual polygamy developed early in his career. As a young scientist in the 1940s, Djerassi at first focused on antihistamines. But soon he read Harvard chemist Louis Fieser’s writings on steroids and changed course, concentrating on the medicinal and biological applications of his work. After earning a PhD at the University of Wisconsin, Djerassi joined the chemical company Syntex in Mexico City, where he worked on the synthetic production of cortisone.

“These were perhaps the most productive years of my life,” he told Stanford chemist Roger Kornberg in a 2011 interview for the Annual Review of Biochemistry. It was at Syntex, on October 15, 1951, that Djerassi and a small team synthesized norethisterone in what he described as “the chemical birth” of oral contraceptives.

In one of his four autobiographies, Djerassi called that discovery “one of the most important technosocial achievements of the postwar years.” Many have agreed, crediting the Pill with transforming women’s role in the workforce and enabling the sexual revolution.

Born in Vienna in 1923, Djerassi escaped from Austria during the Nazis’ annexation of the country. He spent a year and a half studying at an American school in Sofia, Bulgaria, before emigrating to the United States at age 16.

His gumption was apparent early on. Instead of finishing high school, Djerassi enrolled at a community college in Newark, N.J. He then wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt, informing her that he needed a scholarship to a four-year college.

Indirectly—through the Institute of International Education—she complied, and Djerassi spent a semester at now-defunct Tarkio College in Missouri before transferring to Kenyon College in Ohio, where, he said, he “became a chemist.”

Djerassi
Photo: Stanford News Service
MOLECULAR MASTER: Djerassi, pictured in 1959 just after joining Stanford's chemistry department, concerned himself with how to design molecules.

Djerassi appeared to succeed in his work not just by his intellect and broadmindedness but also by the force of his personality.

“He had a very imperious manner,” says Kornberg, who as a teenager played in Djerassi’s swimming pool—Djerassi and Kornberg’s father, biochemistry professor Arthur Kornberg, were friends. “He had great self-confidence, which was justified.”

Djerassi was a key addition to the chemistry department in the late 1950s, when a hiring push by Provost Frederick Terman propelled Stanford into chemistry’s top tier. He turned out to be a divisive character there—both a collaborator and a live wire.

“I don’t think he had friends—not male friends, anyway,” recalled Professor Richard Zare, a former department chair. “He was an extremely competitive person . . . who was very polarizing.

“He was like a dog with a bone—once he had an idea he wouldn’t let go of it.”

Chemistry professor Paul Wender called it honesty.

“He was not necessarily held back by things that would hold other people back,” Wender said. “He was always ‘on’—he always had things of great significance to say, often that were nonobvious but profound.”

Yet Zare and Wender said they loved him, admired him and enjoyed him.

“The gift of gab he exhibited later in life was also evident in his scientific career,” says Kornberg. In 45 years Djerassi published more than 1,200 papers, many that influenced how chemists do their work—particularly with methods and tools such as mass spectrometry, magnetic circular dichroism and optical rotatory dispersion.

Djerassi also devoted himself to birth control in insects, which led him to advances in cockroach and flea control and the founding of Zoecon, a pest control company now owned by Novartis.

In the mid-1960s, Djerassi collaborated with computer science professor Edward Feigenbaum and genetics department founder Joshua Lederberg on Dendral, an artificial intelligence project that studied how scientists formed hypotheses and made discoveries. Djerassi aided the research but also was the scientist whose behavior they modeled. By 1970, Feigenbaum said, the program was performing analysis beyond the PhD level.

It seemed to some who knew him that Djerassi was always seeking a home, often in transition, always striving. He was deeply shaken by the suicide of his daughter, Pamela, in 1978, and by an early bout with cancer in the 1980s, experiences that strengthened his connection to the arts and literature. His family said his cause of death was complications due to cancer.

In his final 25 years, he gained a foothold in the literary world, publishing five novels and eight plays, as well as poetry and short stories. Many of the pieces described the ethical struggles of scientists. He also played the cello and was a noted art collector. In 1979, he founded the Djerassi Resident Artists Program on his ranch in Woodside.

Djerassi’s appetite for learning, and for recognition, appeared insatiable. He received dozens of major awards, including the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology. Still, he felt slighted—because he never won a Nobel Prize; because the American Chemical Society invited him to speak at its conference only once; because, he thought, only a few of his chemistry department colleagues had read his books and plays; and because, he believed, the literary world never fully accepted him.

Djerassi once acknowledged to a Daily reporter his longing for the Nobel Prize.

“I’ve won a reasonable number of awards, and it’s like I said, people are insatiable about this, they never have enough, they always want to have more. I think it’s very important for people to know that scientists are very fallible, very much human beings.”

“I think I’m an interesting human being,” he added, “precisely because I am flawed.”

Feigenbaum recalled, from a conversation in the 1960s, that Lederberg summed up their colleague best.

“Carl,” he said, “is a phenomenon of nature.”

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