Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was more than father of the pill. He was also a noted playwright and novelist with more dimensions to his character than most celebrities. After giving the world Pill, Carl passed away at the ripe old age of 91, just 9 short of a century and en epoch has come to an end.
Reviewing Djerassi’s In Retrospect, the second volume in the series, Alison Abbott noted that Djerassi showed he enjoyed each moment of …his action packed life. Djerassi’s play Oxygen dwelt on the discovery of the gas and showcased Priestley, Lavoisier and Scheele as the central characters, ultimately concluding that time puts matters in their proper perspective. His other works “Menachem’s Seed” was a science fiction of sorts with reproductive biologists playing a key role. “NO” had science of sex as the theme but with a more educational slant. However, it is his first fiction “Cantor’s Dilemma” that is also the most remembered.
Djerassi was born to Samuel Djerassi and Alice Friedmann. His father was a noted dermatologist and his mother a dentist, both of whom fled Vienna to escape Nazi persecution of the Jews and arrived in the USA in 1938. Djerassi studied at the Kenyon College in Ohio and went on to gain a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1945. He started work with Ciba Pharmaceuticals and then Syntex. Working here on methods to produce synthetic cortisone used to treat arthritis he experimented with disogenin that could become the base for progestogen. He was successful in synthesizing an oral contraceptive in 1951 and that changed the world of women, granting them emancipation in a way that rewrote social dynamics for ever.
If women revere him for the Pill, his accomplishments are even more far ranging covering about seven monographs and 1200 articles on chemistry of natural products, artificial intelligence, antihistamines, corticosteroids and applications of physical measurements. He was awarded the National Medal of technology and Innovation for his pioneering work in insect control and the National Medal of Science for his work on the pill followed by the Priestley Medal in 1992 in addition to receiving 18 honorary doctorates and membership of scientific organizations. Perhaps he was one of a kind, melding science with art, being responsible for founding an artists’ colony in Woodside California where he made available facilities for more than 2000 artists, showing him to be a fuller, rounded personality, not just a scientist and author. The world needs more Djerassis.