Carl Djerassi, 2004. Photo: Chemical Heritage Foundation via Wikimedia Commons
Carl Djerassi, widely dubbed “the father of the Pill”, has died at his home in San Francisco at the age of 91. Though best known for synthesizing the hormone that became the key ingredient of the contraceptive pill, the eminent Stanford University professor emeritus made a number of significant contributions to science and technology.
He was also well-known for his books, plays, art collection and cultivation of artists. Another contraceptive scientist this week called him “a true Renaissance man and scholar”. Stanford President John Hennessy hailed him “first and foremost a great scientist” who with his colleagues “transformed the world by making oral contraception effective.”
In an interview about his latest play last year Dr Djerassi told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was “sick and tired of talking about the pill”, and after 60 years who wouldn’t be? Perhaps also he had lived long enough to be disenchanted with the revolution he helped set in motion, or at least have some doubts about the social changes it fuelled.
As an Austrian-born Jew fleeing Hitler, Carl Djerassi arrived in America in 1939, with his mother, at the age of 16. His parents, both doctors, had divorced when he was six, although they remarried to assist the flight of mother and son from Austria. The marriage was annulled soon after, and the elder Dr Djerassi only emigrated to the US in 1949. Penniless in 1939, young Carl wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt to ask for help and received it in the form of a college scholarship.
He excelled in chemistry and after graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a doctorate in 1945 (still in his early twenties) went to work for the Swiss pharmaceutical company Ciba in New Jersey, where he developed the first commercial antihistamine.
In 1949 he was recruited to work for Syntex, a company established in Mexico by American chemist Russell E Marker to synthesize the pregnancy hormone progesterone from the Mexican wild yam. Marker, who pioneered this particular technique, left the company after a dispute with his partners who then hired George Rosenkranz to carry on the programme. It was Rozenkranz who hired the young Dr Djerassi and others.
Djerassi at first successfully led a programme to convert the steroid derived from the yam – diosgenin — into cortisone, then a new drug working wonders for sufferers from rheumatoid arthritis.
Syntex also competed with other drug companies in the hunt for an effective oral contraceptive, their researchers focusing on a synthetic form of progesterone, the hormone which prevents ovulation during pregnancy. This was linked with research on treatments for severe menstrual disorders, infertility and cervical cancer.
In 1951 Djerassi’s group made their breakthrough, synthesising norethindrone, the active ingredient in the first practical (economical and effective) oral contraceptive. Although G.D. Searle and Co actually marketed the first “pill” – following FDA approval in 1960 — Syntex’s product accounted for more than half the oral contraceptive market by the 1970s. In 1951 Fortune magazine headlined: “Syntex makes the biggest technological boom ever heard south of the border.”
Djerassi maintained his connections with the company, becoming president of Syntex Laboratories in Mexico City and Palo Alto, California, and growing wealthy on the strength of his shares in the company. He famously bought 1200 acres near Palo Alto, where he started a cattle ranch, began collecting art, and eventually made half the property over into an artist’s colony in memory of his only daughter, Pamela, an artist who took her own life in 1978.
At the same time he pursued an academic career, joining the faculty of chemistry at Stanford in 1959. Between then and his full retirement in 2002 he published more than 1,200 scientific papers, a rare achievement even by today’s standards, notes the Stanford obituary. It notes also his seminal contributions to molecular research and early computer modelling. In 1968 he founded Zoecon, a company that developed insect controls using modified insect growth hormones.
As a public figure, he was above all an apologist for the pill, travelling widely to promote it and also to defend it against the likes of Germaine Greer — “always a vociferous opponent of the pill,” he noted in a 2007 interview with The Guardian — and Barbara Seaman, whose 1969 book The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill exposed side effects including the risk of blood clots, heart attack, stroke, depression, weight gain and loss of libido.
He was dismissive of such claims – “everything has side effects” – and countered the feminist critique (Why not a male pill?”) by arguing that feminists, above all, should know that women could not trust men to take a pill. Scientifically, he told the Guardian, there was no difficulty; they knew how to make a male pill. But sharing the burden of contraception would take away women’s control over their own fertility, and potentially all the political gains of the previous 50 years.
It’s a comment that sheds quite a lot of light on the effects of the contraceptive revolution. The pill’s “guarantee” of sex without children is also the death of trust between spouses or partners, and between men and women generally. Sex from now on is about negotiation between two people who are (theoretically) equal in power, though equally uncertain of each other’s motives and feelings. And society is reduced to competing camps.
Djerassi’s own life experience perhaps helps to explain why such a miserable state of affairs would seem acceptable. His childhood experience of divorce was echoed in his own two divorces and three marriages. Each divorce was preceded by an affair with another woman – the first arranged when he announced that the woman who would become his second wife was pregnant with Pamela, his first child. (He is survived by her brother, Dale.) These ruptures suggest one reason why “effective contraception” would make good sense not only in terms of the population control for which it was mainly intended but also as a remedy for the social chaos it would cause.
Djerassi conceded that the pill had its downside for women. Its very “effectiveness” (did he ever acknowledge the massive abortion industry it spawned?), he told the Guardian, led men to take it for granted and not bother with condoms – “it is yet another thing that is put on women’s shoulders.” And although it facilitated women’s entry into more professions, it also meant that they postponed childbearing – with all the problems of infertility and unfulfilled dreams that go with that.
We read that in his books and plays he explored the ethical, political and interpersonal dilemmas resulting from science and technology — what really amounts, in the case of the pill, to social engineering. But nothing seems to have shaken his faith in science to provide answers and politics to make use of them. A deeper philosophical or moral perspective is lacking.
In the Guardian interview he said that the flipside of sex without children – that is, children without sex – was the way of the future: we would freeze our sperm and eggs , get sterilised (as he did after his two children were born, as his daughter did at the age of 25 and without children) and check out gametes from the bank when we wanted them later. “Then you might as well forget about contraception. I am absolutely convinced that is the direction in which we’re going in the long run in the Western world.”
Perhaps he was only playing the “agent provocateur” as he liked to style himself, but one would have liked to hear such a clever man, with the hindsight of so many years –not excluding personal tragedy – talk about what was wrong with that direction. What was soul destroying and inhuman about it. It would be too much to expect a confession that the pill itself was a wrong turn, but it is hard to believe that the idea did not occur to him. At least once.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.