“Sixty four — ancient for a drug but still sprightly for many a woman,” Carl Djerassi observed in ‘The pill, chimps and degas’ horse’, one of his three volumes of autobiography, published in 1992.
The inventor of “the pill” died in January 2015, aged 91, only a few months before the 64th birthday of his landmark drug. He led the team that accomplished the first synthesis of a steroid oral contraceptive, working at Syntex in Mexico City, on 15 October 1951, when he was 27. The patent application for norethindrone was filed the following month, and norethindrone went on the market in 1957.
“Through luck and right timing I was involved from the beginning with one of the most important technosocial achievements of the post-war years: the pill,” he said.
But adversity played a part in him finding himself in the right place at the right time. “I would not have become a chemist if I hadn’t been born a Jew in Vienna,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I didn’t have any childhood chemistry sets; I never blew up our basement; prior to my 16th birthday I never did any chemistry nor did I have a single chemical ‘hero’ not even Marie Curie.”
Carl’s parents, Sam Djerassi, a Bulgarian, and Austrian Alice Friedmann, were both Jewish and met at medical school in Vienna, where Carl was born on 29 October 1923.
His parents divorced when he was young and Carl and his mother left Austria to escape the Nazis, arriving in New York in December 1939 with US$20. Carl was 16.
After a year at Newark Junior College, he wrote to US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt saying he needed a room, board and tuition scholarship to continue his studies and was given one by Tarkio College, Missouri. In 1941, when he was not yet 18, he moved to Kenyon College, Ohio, determined to get his bachelor’s degree within the year.
Browsing brochures in the office of the doctor his mother was working with, he discovered there were many pharmaceutical companies located in New Jersey and he wrote to every one he could find asking for a job and was offered one by CIBA.
“It was in Summit, New Jersey, that I crossed my Rubicon into organic chemistry,” he said.
“In less than a year we discovered one of the first antihistamines — pyribenzamine”.
After a year at CIBA he left for the University of Wisconsin and, by the age of 22, he had a PhD, American citizenship and a wife, Virginia Jeremiah, who he married when he was 19 and still a virgin.
The marriage ended in divorce in 1950 after a woman he had been having an affair with, Norma Lundholm, became pregnant. “Ironic, I know, condom failure,” said Djerassi. They married the same year and had two children, Pamela, an artist, who killed herself in 1978 aged 28, and Dale.
They divorced, acrimoniously, in 1976 and were still not speaking at the time of their daughter’s suicide.
Later, in 1985, he married the biographer, Diane Middlebrook, who died in 2007.
In 1949, he accepted an invitation from Syntex in Mexico City to launch a chemical research programme to develop a synthesis of cortisone from the yam-derived plant steroid diosgenin.
Recalling this move, in ‘The politics of contraception’, published in 1979, Djerassi wrote: “I was young and willing to gamble on a few years in Mexico — partly because living in another country appealed to me and also I felt that any scientific achievement from a laboratory in Mexico was likely, upon publication, to make a much bigger impression on academia than coming from the usual laboratories in North America and Europe.”
Satisfied with the speed with which “the pill” was widely adopted, he lamented what he saw as a falling off in research into contraception after its arrival. “‘The pill’ was born at the best possible time and matured at the worst,” he wrote in ‘The pill, chimps and degas’ horse’. “It was synthesised at the heyday of new drugs. Pharmaceutical companies, the media and the public proclaimed and accepted the benefits of post-war chemotherapeutic revolution with barely a reservation.” But a 1998 survey of research priorities of major pharmaceutical companies found that contraception was not even among the top 35, a situation he considered “tragic”.
In 1959, Djerassi became president of Syntex Laboratories in Mexico City and joined the chemistry department at Stanford University where he taught until 2002. In 1968, he founded Zoecon, a company which pioneered biological pest control. He became rich, partly thanks to shares in Syntex and called his Californian home SMIP — “Syntex made it possible”.
The self-declared workaholic said: “I have always displayed a tendency for intellectual bigamy; indeed polygamy.” Djerassi devoted the latter part of his life to collecting art, notably Paul Klee, and writing plays and novels as well as reflections on the implications of his discovery. He also founded a retreat centre for artists in memory of his daughter.
Addressing students at Stanford University in 1995, he hoped a similar path would be open to chemists of the future. “A person able to cope with science and also work in art is a much more interesting person,” he said. He is survived by his son, Dale.