Field of Science

Carl Djerassi (1923-2015): Chemist, writer, polymath, cultural icon

R B Woodward, Vladimir Prelog and Carl Djerassi on the beach at a conference in Riga, Latvia. Photo signed by Djerassi and generously gifted to the author by Prof. Jeffrey Seeman, University of Richmond.
Very few scientists of the 20th century have had as much of both a scientific as well as a cultural impact on the world as Carl Djerassi. It is a measure of how many things Djerassi excelled at that even his amazing purely scientific career seems like a distant horizon. While most scientists are quite happy to become world-renowned in their narrow subfield of science, Djerassi polished off multiple fields of chemistry and then reinvented himself as a notable playwright and writer. And he did all this after significantly contributing to one of the greatest social revolutions of the 20th century, if not of all time - safe, affordable and easily accessible contraception for women. Very few technical inventions in history contributed to giving women control over their lives the way the pill did. Scientists are usually not cultural icons, and the wrong people often are, but Djerassi definitely deserves to be one.

On his 90th birthday, my friend, the noted historian of chemistry Jeff Seeman summarized a few of Djerassi's astonishing contributions and honors:

He has published more than 1,200 scientific papers, 350 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
He is a chemical “father of the Pill.”
He has published three autobiographies, one memoir, five novels, two nonfiction books, 11 plays, two collections of poetry, three collections of essays and short stories, and one art book.
He has made significant contributions, in cash and in kind, to charitable causes and artistic endeavors.
He has received the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology.
He has been awarded the Priestley Medal, the first Wolf Prize in Chemistry, and many other awards, as well as 32 honorary doctorates.
He has been recognized by Austria with a postage stamp issued in his honor.
He is in constant demand as a lecturer around the world.
He will turn 90 on Oct. 29.
Yet, Carl Djerassi has never been fully satisfied.

I first encountered Djerassi's work when as an undergraduate I studied the octant rule that he, R B Woodward, Bill Moffit and others pioneered to study the configuration of steroids. Nobody really uses it anymore since more sophisticated methods like NMR spectroscopy have superseded it, but as I came to know more about Djerassi's contributions, it amazed me that the same man who published the octant rule also pioneered the use of mass spectrometry in natural products chemistry, unraveled the biosynthesis of several key steroids and alkaloids and also published some of the first papers on the applications of artificial intelligence in organic chemistry. His 1200 papers span the breadth of the discipline, and among younger chemists only Clark Still comes to my mind as someone who had the same diversity of contributions.

Djerassi's autobiography ("Steroids Made It Possible") which is edited by Jeff is wonderful and a real treat. In it he talks about a variety of scientific and private topics, ranging from the letter to Eleanor Roosevelt that got him a college scholarship to his experiments with mescaline to his accidental grin in the photo showing Richard Nixon awarding him the National Medal of Science (he hated Nixon and in fact was on Nixon's silly "enemies" list, but Nixon said something funny right at the moment the photo was taken). The book also contains painful ruminations such as the one about his daughter's struggle with addiction and her suicide. Djerassi was nothing but upfront about his life, both in this memoir as well as his subsequent two books, the latest of which just came out and which I haven't read yet. 

His writings are also studded with sketches of great chemists like R B Woodward, Gilbert Stork, Bill Johnson and E J Corey, most of whom Djerassi counted among his close friends and colleagues. In some sense, a journey through his science is a journey through the development of postwar organic chemistry in its golden age. And speaking of R B Woodward, Djerassi managed to become the highest cited chemist of the 60s - at a time when his friend had already staked his claim as the the greatest organic chemist of the century and continued to publish seminal papers. That's no small feat.
Djerassi was of course also a noted playwright, reinventing himself during the second half of his life and crafting the play "Oxygen" with his fellow chemist Roald Hoffmann for instance. He was a great example of someone who bridged C P Snow's two cultures, inculcating and displaying a wide storehouse of knowledge ranging from philosophy and art to literature and science. His shares in Syntex Corporation where he researched steroids also made him a wealthy man and allowed him to do this. It also enabled him to retire early, amass an enviable private art collection and spend part of every year in London and other parts of Europe writing and giving talks. His fiction is well worth reading, and his characters are as interesting and honest as the science he pioneered.

Most laymen will of course always know Djerassi as one of the fathers of the contraceptive pill, although those of us who are aware of his chemical contributions appreciate that it was but one part of his prolific career. As many of us also know, Djerassi was a favorite on Nobel Prize lists for a long time, and as they did with many other scientists, the Nobel Prize committee did themselves a disservice by not awarding him one. But Djerassi's career more than that of most others indicates the irrelevance of prizes, as honorable as they may be. In that sense Djerassi is like Gandhi. His work was beyond prizes, and considering the social revolution that The Pill brought about, he will always stand not only as one of the scientific greats of the 20th century but as one of its most important human beings. RIP.


  1. Stewart Rubenstein1:13 PM, February 02, 2015

    It's worth mentioning that Djerassi was the first expert to be embodied in an expert system. In the late 1960's, Joshua Lederberg, a molecular biologist, Edward Feigenbaum, a computer scientist, and Djerassi collaborated on the DENDRAL project to develop what is generally regarded as the first expert system, which proposed chemical structures consistent with mass spectroscopy and learned from assigned spectra to develop rules for making its own deductions.

  2. Excellent point. I found a video of Djerassi in which he holds forth on his computational work with Lederberg and Feigenbaum. The story also demonstrates how open he was to interdisciplinary collaboration.;jsessionid=1335B8DDDA955565D007CC90614FA919


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