Djerassi, Carl 1923–

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Djerassi, Carl 1923–

PERSONAL: Born October 29, 1923, in Vienna, Austria; son of Samuel (a physician) and Alice (a physician) Djerassi; married; wife's name Virginia (divorced, 1950); married; wife's name Norma (divorced, 1976); married Diane Middlebrook (a professor and writer), June 21, 1985; children: Pamela Djerassi Bush (deceased), Dale. Education: Kenyon College, A.B. (summa cum laude), 1942; University of Wisconsin—Madison, Ph.D., 1945.

ADDRESSES: Home—1101 Green St., Apt. 1501, San Francisco, CA 94109-2012. Office—c/o Department of Chemistry, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-5080. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: CIBA Pharmaceuticals, Summit, NJ, research chemist, 1942–43 and 1945–49; Syntex S.A., Mexico City, Mexico, associate director of chemical research, 1949–52, vice president of research, 1957–60; Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, associate professor, 1952–53, professor of chemistry, 1953–59; Stanford University, Stanford, CA, professor of chemistry, 1959–2002, professor emeritus, 2002–. Syntex Research, president, 1968–72; Zoecon Corp., chief executive officer, 1968–83, chair, 1968–88; past member of board of directors of Cetus Corp., Vitaphore, Inc., Monoclonal Antibodies, Inc., and Qidel, Inc. Djerassi Resident Artists' Program, Woodside, CA, founder and past president.

MEMBER: National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Chemical Society, American Academy of Pharmaceutical Sciences (honorary member), Royal Society of Chemistry (London, England; honorary member), Austrian Chemical Society (honorary member), Brazilian Academy of Sciences, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, German Academy of Sciences-Leopoldina, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Mexican Academy of Scientific Investigation, Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering, Academia Europaea.

AWARDS, HONORS: American Chemical Society, Award in Pure Chemistry, 1958, Baekeland Medal, 1959, Fritzsche Award, 1960, Award for Creative Invention, 1973, Award in the Chemistry of Contemporary Technological Problems, 1983, Priestley Medal, 1992, Gibbs Medal, 1997; American Institute of Chemists, Freedman Foundation Patent Award, 1970, Chemical Pioneer Award, 1973, Gold Medal, 2004; National Medal of Science, 1973, for first synthesis of steroid oral contraceptive; Perkin Medal, Society for Chemical Industry, 1975; Wolf Prize in Chemistry, 1978; inducted into National Inventors Hall of Fame, 1978, for steroid oral contraceptive patent; Bard Award in Medicine and Science, 1983; Roussel Prize, 1988; Discoverer's Award, Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, 1988; Gustavus John Esselen Award for Chemistry in the Public Interest, 1989; award from National Academy of Sciences, 1990, for industrial application of science; National Medal of Technology, 1991, for contributions in the insect control field; Nevada Medal, 1992; Thomson Gold Medal, International Mass Spectrometry Society, 1994; Prince Mahidol Award in Medicine (Thailand), 1996; Sovereign Fund Award, 1996; William Procter Prize for Scientific Achievement, Sigma Xi, 1998; Austrian Cross of Honor for science and art, 1999; Othmer Gold Medal, Chemical Heritage Foundation, 2000; Author's Prize, German Chemical Society, 2001; Erasmus Medal, Academia Europaea, 2003; Sigillum magnum, University of Bologna, 2003; Great Merit Cross of Germany, 2003; Serono Prize in Literature (Rome, Italy), 2005, for Italian translation of The Bourbaki Gambit; Lichtenberg Medal, Göttingen Academy of Sciences, 2005; honorary degrees from National University of Mexico, Kenyon College, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Wayne State University, Columbia University, University of Uppsala, Coe College, University of Geneva, University of Ghent, University of Manitoba, Adelphi University, University of South Carolina, University of Wisconsin, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, University of Maryland—Baltimore County, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, University of Aberdeen, Polytechnic University of New York, and Cambridge University.


The Politics of Contraception: Birth Control in the Year 2001, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1979.

The Futurist, and Other Stories, Macdonald Futura (London, England), 1988.

Steroids Made It Possible (autobiography), American Chemical Society (Washington, DC), 1990.

The Clock Runs Backward (poetry), Story Line Press (Brownsville, OR), 1991.

The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse: The Autobiography of Carl Djerassi, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1992.

From the Lab into the World: A Pill for People, Pests, and Bugs (essays), American Chemical Society (Washington, DC), 1994.

Marx, Deceased (novel), University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1996.

This Man's Pill: Reflections on the 50th Birthday of the Pill, Oxford University Press (London, England), 2001.

(Editor, with Carl Aigner) Paul Klee: Masterpieces of the Djerassi Collection, Prestel (New York, NY), 2002.

Author of preface to Paul Klee: The Djerassi Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, by Janet Bishop, Kelly Purcell, and John S. Weber, 1997. Contributor to periodicals, including Hudson Review, Southern Review, Kenyon Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review.

All of Djerassi's books have been published in other languages.


Optical Rotatory Dispersion, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1960.

(Editor) Steroid Reactions, Holden-Day (San Francisco, CA), 1963.

(With Herbert Budzikiewicz and D.H. Williams) Interpretation of Mass Spectra of Organic Compounds, Holden-Day (San Francisco, CA), 1964.

(With Herbert Budzikiewicz and D.H. Williams) Structure Elucidation of Natural Products of Mass Spectrometry, two volumes, Holden-Day (San Francisco, CA), 1964.

(With Herbert Budzikiewicz and D.H. Williams) Mass Spectrometry of Organic Compounds, Holden-Day (San Francisco, CA), 1967.

Contributor of more than 1,200 articles to scientific journals.


Cantor's Dilemma, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1989.

The Bourbaki Gambit, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1994.

Menachem's Seed, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1997.

NO, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1998.


An Immaculate Misconception: Sex in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction (produced in Edinburgh, Scotland, at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, 1998; at New End Theater, London, England, 1999; at Eureka Theater, San Francisco, CA; and at Primary Stages, New York, NY), Imperial College Press (London, England), 2000.

(With Roald Hoffmann) Oxygen: A Play in Two Acts (produced at San Diego Repertory Theater, San Diego, CA; at Würzburg Theatre, Germany; and at Riverside Studios, London, England), Wiley-VCH (New York, NY), 2001.

(With David Pinner) Newton's Darkness: Two Dramatic Views (includes "Calculus;" produced at Performing Arts Library and Museum, San Francisco, CA, 2003; and at New End Theater, London, England, 2004), Imperial College Press (London, England), 2003.

Ego (performed in English at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2003, and throughout Germany, 2006), translated into German by Ursula-Maria Mössner, Haymon Verlag (Innsbruck, Austria), 2004.

Three on a Couch, produced at King's Head Theater, London, England, 2004.

Tabus/Phallstricke: Zwei Theaterstücke aus den Welten der Naturwissenschaft und der Kunst (contains "Phallstricke," produced in English as "Phallacy" at New End Theater, London, England, 2005; and "Tabus," produced in English as "Taboos" at New End Theater, London, England, 2006), translated into German by Ursula-Maria Mössner, Haymon Verlag (Innsbruck, Austria), 2006.

Other plays include "ICSI-Sex in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," 2002; "NO," (with Pierre Laszlo), 2003; and "Four Jews on Parnassus," 2006.

Djerassi's plays have been translated and published in several languages, including German, Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, Swedish, Chinese, and Korean. Djerassi has adapted many of his works as radio plays broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation World Service, in Germany by the WDR, in the United States by National Public Radio, and elsewhere.

ADAPTATIONS: The play "Calculus" was adapted as a chamber opera, composed by Werner Schulze and directed by Isabella Gregor, performed at Zurich Opera Studiobühne, Zurich, Switzerland, in 2005.

SIDELIGHTS: Carl Djerassi has had a varied career. An award-winning chemist who, among other accomplishments, synthesized the first oral contraceptive, he has written not only many scientific works but also "science-in-fiction" novels in which he portrays "in verifictional disguise the behavior and tribal culture of contemporary scientists," as he once told CA. In addi-tion, his body of work includes Marx, Deceased—a novel about a novelist—poetry, short stories, plays, and autobiographies.

In Cantor's Dilemma, the protagonist, Professor I. Cantor, is a well-known biologist studying the nature of cancerous cells. His life takes a dramatic turn when he comes up with a hypothesis that could explain what causes a cell to become cancerous. He instructs his assistant to test the theory, and when the results prove the hypothesis to be valid, Cantor knows that his findings could earn him the highest of all scientific achievements, the Nobel Prize. A published report on his activities brings him wide acclaim in the scientific community. Eventually, though, Cantor discovers that his assistant may have cheated on some of the lab results, and he realizes that his theory might lack the evidence needed to prove its validity. Knowing that his professional reputation and his chance to win the Nobel Prize are at risk, he must devise a way to prove his theory and cover up inconsistencies in the testing process. By the novel's conclusion Cantor does get the coveted prize, but not before he questions his behavior and the moral ambiguities that abound in his profession.

Reviews of the novel were generally positive. Critics especially noted the author's depiction of the ethical dilemmas that exist in the highly competitive atmosphere of scientific research. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Lawrence Shainberg pointed out these dilemmas—"the intrigue that scientists have to endure in order to finance their work, the tremendous temptation to 'massage' results, the backbiting and small-mindedness that go on behind the scenes"—and described Djerassi's handling of them as "compelling, profound and relevant to a world much larger than the one he writes about." Washington Post Book World contributor Curt Suplee stated that the author "transmutes an abstruse subject into something both entertaining and instructive." Similarly, Shainberg wrote that "[Djerassi's] story is gripping and suspenseful, and he is so precise and unsentimental in his rendering of the scientific establishment that Cantor's Dilemma ought to be required reading for anyone embarking on, or for that matter looking back on, a career in this field."

The Bourbaki Gambit deals with a quartet of scientists who have been forced into retirement and decide to go on doing research under a collective pseudonym. Their work produces a significant discovery—polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a means by which to isolate and copy small amounts of DNA. (In reality, Kary Mullis, a scientist with Cetus Corporation, where Djerassi served on the board of directors, discovered PCR.) This breakthrough threatens to tear the group apart. "The questions of ego in science and competitiveness in the process of creativity are central ideas explored in this book," commented Charles Radey in the Journal of the American Medical Association but added that Djerassi's "conclusions about the possibility of a sustained collective spirit seem quite pessimistic."

With his next novel, Marx, Deceased, Djerassi left science temporarily behind. This work deals with novelist Stephen Marx who, wishing to see how his reputation will hold up after his death, stages his demise. He then starts writing under a new name, but becomes involved with a journalist who has found him out. Meanwhile, his supposed widow has begun a relationship with a critic who is preparing a summation of Marx's work, intended as an act of revenge, as the critic was the injured party in one of Marx's many extramarital affairs. Djerassi once told CA that while this novel is "seemingly unrelated" to his tetralogy, "it does merit reading as a component" of it. Like the science-in-fiction works, it deals with questions of ego and recognition.

Djerassi resumed the tetralogy with Menachem's Seed. Set against a background of conferences dealing with science and politics, it revolves around a love affair between Menachem Dvir, an Israeli government official, and Melanie Laidlaw, an American who runs a foundation that deals with human reproduction. Melanie, who is widowed and childless, wants to have Menachem's child; however, he is not only married but apparently sterile. They turn to science in an effort to overcome the latter obstacle. "The story of Melanie and Menachem is a delight," observed Philip Smith in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who also noted that Djerassi "is concerned with the fullness of an adult relationship."

The title of NO, Djerassi once told CA, has more than one meaning: "It refers to the many layers of the negative expletive as well as to the chemical formula of nitric oxide." The central character of the novel, chemist Renu Krishnan, is helping to develop a treatment for male impotence using nitric oxide. These efforts take her away from academia and into business, with the author exploring "the intersection of capitalism and reproductive technology," as a Publishers Weekly critic put it. Djerassi, who has worked in industry as well as in the academic world, once told CA that the business setting of NO fills a gap in his tetralogy's "semifictive survey of the scientific scene." The Publishers Weekly commentator commented positively on the portrayal of this milieu, saying that the author "clearly knows his way around labs and the money that makes them go." Library Journal reviewer Rachel Singer believed the book "should appeal to fans of [Djerassi's] previous work."

Djerassi's autobiographical books are Steroids Made It Possible, which focuses on his scientific work, and The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse: The Autobiography of Carl Djerassi, which provides "a fuller and often more eloquent account of Djerassi's multi-faceted life," in the words of Science reviewer Jerrold Meinwald. Djerassi was born in Vienna, the son of two physicians. Being Jewish, he and his mother fled the country in 1938, when the Nazis occupied Austria; they went first to Bulgaria, then to the United States, where Djerassi completed his education. He has been married three times and fathered a son and daughter, the latter of whom committed suicide as a young adult. Djerassi's other tribulations have included a bout with cancer. On the positive side, in addition to his accomplishments in science and literature, he has become a noted art collector (notably of the works of Paul Klee) and patron; the "Degas' horse" of the title is a sculpture in his collection.

Meinwald noted of Steroids Made It Possible that "readers will appreciate the author's overview" of his research, "along with his selection of his own 'greatest hits,' since it is unlikely that many will ever read a significant fraction of this massive output." The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse, he added, is a "welcome sequel" in which Djerassi exhibits commendable candor about his personal life. A Publishers Weekly critic allowed that science-minded readers may find the book "haphazard" and excessively "anecdotal," but also said it "shatter[s] the cliche of scientists as one-dimensional technocrats" and "reveals a singular life." Meinwald summed up both volumes by saying: "Overall, Carl Djerassi's ability to overcome difficulties of both a physical and a spiritual nature, his startling combination of competitive spirit and altruism, his breadth of interest, and his successful move away from scientific research and into entirely new fields of endeavor at a stage when many would be quietly retiring are all portrayed with clarity and enthusiasm in these complementary accounts of a rich and complex life."

Djerassi recently told CA: "I would like to make an observation on my latest reincarnation, from scientist to novelist and now to playwright. I am not solely interested in having my plays presented in the stage as 'science-in-theater;' I am at least as interested in seeing them distributed as reading material in book form.

"By 'science-in-theater,' I refer to plays in which science and scientists do not fulfill primarily a metaphoric function—praiseworthy and attractive as such efforts have been in major plays written by others—but rather constitute the central focus of the play. My personal definition of science-in-theater is even more restricted, in requiring also that the science depicted is real or at least plausible, and that the behavior of my scientific characters is authentic in the sense of documenting their tribal behavior. These same restrictions pertain to the form of literary prose writing that I have categorized as science-in-fiction to differentiate it from the more widely practiced genre of science fiction.

"Is science-in-theater simply science-in-fiction presented on the stage rather than within the covers of a book? I prefer to claim that there is more to it. Since the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, dialog has essentially disappeared from the written discourse of scientists. Yet dialog humanizes discourse in an important sense and, since my objective as a scientist-author is to depict the human foibles and virtues of my tribe's culture, I have now turned in my writing to the most dialogic form of literature—namely drama.

"While I clearly wish my plays to be seen on the stage, even the most popular plays are only performed occasionally and only in a few locations at any one time. I believe that my type of science-in-theater can also be read on its own merits as tales of science and scientists, which just happen to be presented entirely in dialogic form. 'An Immaculate Conception: Sex in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction'—as the subtitle implies—deals with a scientific discovery that is revolutionizing the nature of human reproduction. It does so through the use of a new and contentious technique of assisted reproduction (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) that promises to push to the limits the consequences of the impending separation of sex (in bed) and fertilization (under the microscope). In the process of reading or observing the play, a person is bound to appreciate both the technical and moral aspects of this new technique.

"The play 'Calculus,' on the other hand, deals less with science than with the morals of scientists in terms of the vicious priority struggle between two of the greatest European intellectual giants, Newton and Leibniz, which persisted for three decades. It is meant to illustrate one aspect of the scientific culture—the drive for priority—that is both the nourishment and the poison of research scientists. The play demonstrates that little has changed in this regard during the past 300 years.

"In my opinion, the themes of these science plays are worth pondering. So why not also within the covers of a book of pure dialog, rather than just on the stage?"



Djerassi, Carl, Steroids Made It Possible, American Chemical Society (Washington, DC), 1990.

Djerassi, Carl, The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse: The Autobiography of Carl Djerassi, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1992.


Booklist, August, 1998, Eric Robbins, review of NO, p. 1978.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November-December, 1997, Philip Smith, review of Menachem's Seed, p. 57.

Chicago Tribune, October 18, 1989.

Journal of the American Medical Association, July 11, 1990, Lawrence Grouse, review of Cantor's Dilemma, p. 266; August 26, 1992, Lawrence Grouse, review of The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse: The Autobiography of Carl Djerassi, p. 1033; February 8, 1995, Bernard A. Eskin, review of From the Lab into the World: A Pill for People, Pets, and Bugs, p. 510; November 8, 1995, Charles Radey, review of The Bourbaki Gambit, p. 1480.

Library Journal, September 1, 1998, Rachel Singer, review of NO, p. 213.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 29, 1989, review of Cantor's Dilemma, p. 1.

New York Times Book Review, November 5, 1989, Lawrence Shainberg, review of Cantor's Dilemma, p. 14; November 20, 1994, Paul Rabinow, review of The Bourbaki Gambit, p. 33; November 16, 1996, K. Thomas MacFarlane, review of Marx, Deceased, p. 25.

Publishers Weekly, January 7, 1992, review of The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse, p. 79; September 26, 1994, review of The Bourbaki Gambit, p. 54; July 1, 1996, review of Marx, Deceased, p. 43; July 28, 1997, review of Menachem's Seed, p. 53; July 13, 1998, review of NO, p. 62.

Science, November 10, 1989, Katherine Livingston, review of Cantor's Dilemma, p. 829; May 15, 1992, Jerrold Meinwald, reviews of Steroids Made It Possible and The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse, p. 1044; July 7, 1995, Katherine Livingston, review of The Bourbaki Gambit, p. 109.

Times (London, England), April 26, 1990.

Washington Post Book World, November 12, 1989, Curt Suplee, review of Cantor's Dilemma.


Carl Djerassi Home Page, (August 1, 2006).