February 1, 2015 2:20 pm
Carl Djerassi, chemist, writer and father of contraceptive pill
Clive Cookson, Science Editor
Carl Djerassi, sometimes known as “the father of the contraceptive pill” and one of the most creative chemists of the last century, has died at the age of 91.
His extraordinary energy took him from outstanding discoveries in organic chemistry into a second career as a prolific writer about moral and ethical issues in science, through novels, plays and articles.
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Even during the final months of his life – although debilitated by terminal cancer – Djerassi took delight in debating the latest developments in reproductive technology, as he travelled between his three homes in San Francisco, Vienna and London. In provocative articles and interviews he advocated the use of egg freezing to enable women to postpone having babies for the sake of their careers.
Djerassi’s stake in Syntex, the company for which he developed oral contraceptives and other hormone-based pharmaceuticals in the 1950s, had made him rich. He used his wealth to build up an important collection of 20th-century art, particularly modernist paintings by Paul Klee and others, which he donated to museums in the US and Europe.
Stanford University in California, a global centre of chemical excellence, was Djerassi’s base for most of his career. “Carl Djerassi is probably the greatest chemist our department ever had,” said his fellow Stanford professor Richard Zare. “I know of no person in the world who combined the mastery of science with literary talent as Carl Djerassi did.”
Carl Djerassi was born in Vienna on October 29, 1923, into a Jewish medical family. His father Samuel was a dermatologist and his mother Alice a dentist and physician. They escaped after the 1938 Nazi takeover via Bulgaria to the US, where Carl excelled as a chemistry student at Kenyon College and the University of Wisconsin.
After obtaining a PhD in 1945, he worked as a researcher at Ciba pharmaceuticals in New Jersey, developing one of the first antihistamine drugs (Pyribenzamine, which is still prescribed today). Then, in 1949, he accepted a job with Syntex, an ambitious new drug company in Mexico City – the unlikely location of his greatest chemical achievement. There, he found new ways to make steroid compounds such as cortisone and, most famously, norethindrone, a synthetic hormone that prevents conception by mimicking the effect of pregnancy.
Although the development of oral contraceptives, like most pharmaceutical projects, involved several inventive scientists, Djerassi received most public recognition for the achievement (including the National Medal of Science from President Richard Nixon). Writing and talking about it in later life, he was careful to give credit to colleagues, though he was privately proud to be known as the father of the pill – and remained passionately interested in the science of reproduction and contraception.
Things did not proceed as he had expected. “I thought [the success of the pill in the 1960s] would be the beginning of an explosion of research into many areas of birth control,” he told the Financial Times last November. “None was in the end funded.”
He also lamented the ultimate fate of the company that made him rich. Syntex, one of the developing world’s few successful pharmaceutical businesses, was bought by Roche of Switzerland in 1994 and its entire research division in Mexico closed down. He said: “To me, the coldbloodedness of this corporate amputation seems unforgivable.”
After Djerassi’s appointment as chemistry professor at Stanford in 1959 he focused on academic work, achieving a lifetime total of 1,200 scientific papers. His chemical contributions ran from advances in biosynthesis to new analytical methods for determining the structure of complex molecules.
The final 25 years of Djerassi’s life were marked by writing beyond chemistry: memoirs, short stories, novels and plays with scientists as the principal characters. Cantor’s Dilemma, a novel about scientific fraud, and Oxygen, a play about 18th-century discovery, were particularly successful examples of “science in fiction”.
Djerassi’s late literary flourishing was inspired by his third wife Diane Middlebrook, a Stanford English professor. Her death in 2007 at the age of 68 was one of several tragedies in his life. He had been particularly affected by the suicide of his daughter Pamela in 1978. He is survived by his son Dale, grandson Alexander and stepdaughter Leah.
After Diane’s death, Djerassi kept going at a frenetic pace, sometimes travelling 100,000 miles a year between speaking, theatrical and cultural engagements around the world. He could be vain and self-regarding – not trying to hide how much he cared about his personal appearance, for example – and his critical tongue made him enemies.
But Djerassi also had a large and devoted set of friends, who appreciated his wit and generosity. And beyond his scientific achievements he gave chemistry — a discipline with a somewhat dour reputation — a public face of warmth and humanity.