By George B. Kauffman and Laurie M. Kauffman
All the major medical advances of the last century garnered Nobel Prizes. However, we have never understood why Carl Djerassi, the father of the contraceptive pill (as an avowed feminist, he actually prefers the designation “mother”), never received this ne plus ultra of scientific accolades. The pill (norethindrone or norethisterone) has done more to positively affect lives of not only women but also of everyone throughout the globe because it has helped to stem one of the most serious problems of our time—overpopulation. However, he received every other major award in the world.
Djerassi, the author of books, plays, poetry and more than 1,200 scientific articles, died of the complications of liver and bone cancer in his home in San Francisco on Jan. 30 at the age of 91. Djerassi, who also had homes in Vienna and London, received 34 honorary doctorates and a score of professional and government awards. One of the awards included the National Medal of Science (chemistry), the nation’s highest science honor, presented by President Richard M. Nixon in 1973, two weeks before his name appeared on the White House Enemies List of Watergate fame, and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the nation’s highest technology award, presented by President George Bush in 1991.
Djerassi’s first marriage, to Virginia Jeremiah, ended in divorce in 1950. He and his second wife, Norma Lundholm, were married in 1950 and divorced in 1976. They had a son, Dale, and a daughter, Pamela. His third wife, Diane Middlebrook, whom he married in 1985, died in 2007. Besides his son, Dale, a grandson and a stepdaughter, Leah Middlebrook, survive him.
Our relationship with Djerassi dates from the 1980s. After some correspondence, we met and interviewed him at his SMIP (Steroids Made it Possible) ranch in California’s Santa Cruz mountains.
The meeting was an unmitigated disaster. At the time, BBC 1 was filming the last (22nd) entry, “A Scattering of Ashes: An Intimate Portrait of Carl Djerassi,” in the series The Human Element, which eventually was broadcast on BBC 1 on June 28, 1992. One of us tripped over an electric cable involved in the filming. Not one to maintain a grievance, after we had begun our now-extensive reviews of every one of his novels, plays, poems, essays, “Science-in-Fiction,” “Science-in-Theatre” and autobiographies. By 1990, Djerassi dubbed us “My favorite reviewers” and, overcoming his European reserve, he soon permitted us to address him by his first name. Djerassi’s life, laced with triumphs and tragedies, provides us with a perfect example of Lord Byron’s dictum, “Truth is always strange; stranger than fiction.”
He was born on Oct. 29, 1923 in Vienna, Austria, the only child of Samuel Djerassi, a Bulgarian physician, and Alice Djerassi (née Friedmann), an Austrian dentist. Both parents were unobservant Jews (Carl described himself as a “Jewish atheist”). His parents divorced when Carl was six years old. A brilliant student, he attended schools in Vienna, including Sigmund Freud’s high school (Gymnasium). He spent most of his time with his mother in Vienna and summers in Sofia, Bulgaria, with his father. After the Anschluß (Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938), his father remarried his mother so she and Carl could procure Bulgarian passports and emigrate to the United States.
The remarriage was annulled, and in December 1939 Carl and his mother reached New York City with little money, losing their last $20 to a swindling NYC cabdriver. Carl attended Newark Junior College (two semesters) and wrote for assistance to Eleanor Roosevelt, who forwarded his letter to a foundation that awarded him a scholarship for the Spring 1941 semester to Tarkio College in Tarkio, Mo. He spent two semesters and a summer at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, receiving his A.B. degree summa cum laude in 1942, when he was not quite 19.
Djerassi became a chemist at CIBA Pharmaceutical Products in Summit, N.J., where he co-synthesized and obtained a patent for pyribenzamine (tripelennamine), one of the first commercial antihistamines and a popular drug for allergy sufferers. In 1943, he obtained a fellowship at the University of Wisconsin. He converted the male sex hormone (testosterone) to the female sex hormone (estradiol), which had previously been extracted from large amounts of pregnant mares’ urine. In 1945, he received his Ph.D. after only two years of graduate work and became a naturalized American citizen. He returned to CIBA (1945–1949), resuming his research on antihistamines and steroids. At the age of 25, he hoped to establish his reputation with research publications and enter academia later.
In 1949, George Rosenkranz of Laboratorios Syntex, a small pharmaceutical lab in Mexico City, appointed Djerassi associate director of research to synthesize cortisone from diosgenin, extracted from tubers of the inedible Mexican yam Dioscorea. Within two years, they succeeded. They next reported a second synthesis, from hecogenin, from the waste products of the Agave hemp plant sisal.
In 1951, Syntex was the only firm synthesizing progesterone, the female sex hormone, in large amounts from diosgenin. Within a few months, the Upjohn Company succeeded in converting progesterone to cortisone. Syntex became the major supplier of raw material for this synthesis.
Because progesterone inhibits ovulation, preventing a pregnant woman from being fertilized again during pregnancy, it was considered nature’s contraceptive. Djerassi synthesized 19-norprogesterone, four to eight times as active as natural progesterone, which was the most effective progestational hormone. He synthesized 19-nor-17- ethynyltestoterone and submitted it for biological evaluation, which showed it to be the most potent oral progestin then known. Because Syntex had no pharmaceutical outlets or biological laboratories, he chose Parke-Davis to market it as Norlutin after receiving approval from the Food and Drug Administration in 1957.
In 1952, Djerassi became a tenured associate professor at Wayne University (now Wayne State University) in Detroit, Mich. He became a full professor in 1953. During his five years there, he initiated research that he considered his most important chemical contribution—application of physicochemical techniques to characterize and determine the structures of organic compounds.
Djerassi returned to Syntex for a second three-year term as vice president for research. In 1959, he became president of Syntex, a connection that made him wealthy and enabled him to purchase 1,200 acres for his SMIP cattle ranch and to begin collecting art. In 1959, he also became professor of chemistry at Stanford University, where he remained as professor emeritus until his death. He retained his ties to industry, serving in important positions with Syntex, Zoecon and other firms.
In 1978, his artist daughter Pamela committed suicide, which he called “the greatest tragedy of my life.” He finally came to terms with that event the following year by turning half of his SMIP ranch into an artist’s colony with housing and studios for scores of visual artists, writers, composers and choreographers. The Djerassi Resident Artists Program, the largest in the western United States and among the best in the country, has provided more than 2,000 residencies and currently serves approximately 90 artists annually, all free of charge.
In 1985, a five-hour cancer operation forced Djerassi to come to terms with his own mortality. He embarked on a third career (after his scientific careers in industry and academe) in creative writing, becoming a novelist, poet and playwright, specializing in “science-in-fiction” as opposed to science fiction.
We will truly miss our nonagenarian polymath colleague and friend.
George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at Fresno State and a Guggenheim Fellow, is a recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach and the Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, and numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the American Chemical Society (ACS), respectively. Laurie M. Kauffman, his wife and frequent coauthor, is concerned with the humanistic aspects of science.