Djerassi, Carl

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DJERASSI, CARL (1923– ), U.S. chemist. The son of a Bulgarian father and Austrian mother, both Jewish physicians, Djerassi was born in Vienna but immigrated to the U.S. with his mother in 1938 to escape from the Nazis. He was educated at the American College in Sofia and at Newark Junior College, New Jersey, before graduating with a B.A. from Kenyon College, Ohio (1942), and obtaining his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Wisconsin (1945). After working with the Ciba pharmaceutical company, he moved to Syntex in Mexico City (1949–52) before becoming a professor first at Wayne State University, Detroit, and subsequently at Stanford University (1959). He continued his association with Syntex as vice president for research. Djerassi made major contributions to organic chemistry, including elucidating the structure of complex natural products with innovative optical and spectrometric techniques, characterizing a vast range of sterols encountered in marine sponges and corals, synthesizing many novel steroids, and advancing alkaloid and terpenoid chemistry. As president of Syntex's offshoot company, Zoecon, he was concerned with new approaches to insect control. His best-known achievement is the first synthesis of a female oral contraceptive, "norethisterone." His prodigious scientific output is reported in over 1,200 original articles and seven scientific monographs. His many honors include election to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (1961), the National Medal of Science (1973), the first Wolf Prize in Chemistry (1978), the National Medal of Technology (1991), the Priestley Medal (1992), and the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Chemists (2004).

Djerassi was deeply involved in scientific programs relevant to less-developed countries; he participated in Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs and chaired the U.S. National Academy of Sciences Board for International Development. He was also concerned with the social and cultural problems of population control. His many other interests include writing fiction, poetry, and plays with a particular concern for the portrayal of scientists in fiction and drama. His well-known works include the plays An Immaculate Misconception (1999), Calculus (2003), Ego (2004) and five novels, two of which (Menachem's Seed and NO) are set in Israel. His interest in the visual arts inspired the foundation of the Resident Artists Program at Woodside, California, and his collection of Paul Klee's works.

[Michael Denman (2nd ed.)]