by Sarah Lehr
An embodiment of the well-rounded liberal arts ideal, Carl Djerassi ’43 died in his San Francisco home last Friday due to complications from cancer. He was 91. Though best known for his scientific achievements, including the synthesis of a key ingredient in the first oral contraceptive, he devoted his later life to writing and to supporting the arts.
During his adolescence, Djerassi fled Nazi persecution in Austria, his birth country, first immigrating to Bulgaria and then to the United States. Upon the Djerassis’ arrival in New York in 1939, a taxi driver cheated Carl and his mother out of the last $20 they had. A few years later, Djerassi wrote then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt requesting a college scholarship. He later remarked in a 2012 Collegian article: “I had the idea that she was sort of the queen of America. “He did win a scholarship to Tarkio College in Missouri, but transferred to Kenyon his junior year. Djerassi’s son, filmmaker Dale Djerassi, said, “He always had tremendous affection for Kenyon as a great institution of higher learning.”
At Kenyon, though Djerassi majored in chemistry, he lived in Douglas House, a residence which was typically reserved for the protégés of poet and Kenyon Review founder John Crowe Ransom. His literary surroundings perhaps proved prophetic since he later became a poet, playwright and author. His interests at Kenyon extended beyond the scientific. He wrote a column for the Collegian called “From the Other Side,” about life in Europe.
Soon after graduating summa cum laude from Kenyon at age 19, Djerassi accepted a position at the pharmaceutical company CIBA, where he helped develop the first antihistamine to treat allergies. Concurrently with his employment at CIBA he pursued a PhD at the University of Wisconsin, which he completed at age 22. These accomplishments did not go unnoticed; Syntex, a pharmaceutical company in Mexico, offered him a job. So, Djerassi made a pro-and-con list: CIBA or Sytnex? The list overwhelmingly came out in favor of CIBA, but Djerassi rejected the meticulous reasoning of a scientist, and left for Syntex, which was then a small company lacking CIBA’s notoriety. The risk paid off. At Syntex, Djerassi and two colleagues developed the hormone necessary for what, in 1951, would become the first oral contraceptive, also known as “the Pill.”
A proud feminist, Djerassi praised the Pill’s societal effects; it allowed women to prioritize education and careers by deciding if and when to have children. Djerassi disliked being labeled the “father of the birth control pill” because he felt the epithet didn’t give due credit to his colleague Gregory Pincus and because of the phallo-centric implications of attributing all inventions to “fathers.” He told the Kenyon Alumni Bulletin in 2012: “The nourishing maternal environment is much more important than a puny sperm. I’d rather be called the mother of the Pill.”
Mothering the Pill, however, was far from Djerassi’s only scientific contribution. Among other insights, he pioneered techniques for understanding molecular structures. Kenyon President Sean Decatur, who holds a PhD in chemistry and who pursued graduate studies at Stanford University while Djerassi served on Stanford’s faculty, said Djerassi “was really on the leading edge of doing work, including work that a lot of students taking [Kenyon’s] organic chemistry courses and labs would think was sort of routine, that people had always done.”
Patents such as those necessary for the Pill proved lucrative, but Dale emphasized that his father valued the pursuit of knowledge above all. “The professor part — Professor Carl Djerassi — was what he really valued about his career,” Dale said.
Former Kenyon trustee Harvey Lodish ’62 H’82 P’89 worked at Djerassi’s Stanford lab the summer before Lodish’s senior year at Kenyon. Lodish, now a professor of biology and biomedical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-founder of several biotechnology companies, said of the experience, “It made me very aware of the way that academic scientists can work with industry and develop important drugs.”
“I’ve heard from so many people the significance of him in their lives and I don’t mean in a general, ‘Hey, thank goodness for the birth control pill’ kind of way,” Dale said of his father. “I’m talking about very personal relationships.”
Djerassi was not a man one forgot easily. Physically, he was athletic with a slight limp from a teenage skiing accident. His small stature contrasted with his intense personality. Director of the Kenyon Institute Sarah Kahrl remembered Djerassi’s manner as polite and formal, yet warm. “He was a very courtly scholar,” she said. Dale described his father as a simultaneously demanding and loving parent, who held liberal politics alongside an “Old World sense of manners.”
Those liberal politics caught the attention of President Richard Nixon, who included Djerassi on his list of enemies later made public after the Watergate scandal. Ironically, it was Nixon who presented Djerassi with the National Medal of Science in 1973. To commemorate the occasion, Djerassi’s graduate students gifted their professor with the official photo of Nixon and Djerassi, complete with a frame bearing the inscription, “Support your local enemy,” according to Djerassi’s son. Djerassi displayed the photo in his Stanford office as an expression of his pride both at winning the medal and at making Nixon’s enemies list.
Djerassi held on to that cheeky sense of humor to the end. He developed a close friendship with his personal trainer, a man named Jorge Chavez. “[Chavez was] straight out of the Mission District of San Francisco with a checkered and challenged youth, who overcame everything in order to be a champion of life,” Dale said. Days before his death, Djerassi discussed the afterlife with his nurse and with Chavez. The pair asked Djerassi to give them a sign after he reached the other side — flickering lights or a slamming screen door, for instance. Djerassi said he would flush a toilet since the two of them were full of shit.
As a self-described “Jewish atheist,” Djerassi had no interest in religion but engaged with the cultural side of his Jewish identity. “The fact that he was forced to leave his homeland because of his Jewish parentage never left him,” Dale said. Despite the hardships of his refugee youth, the suicide of Pamela, his 28-year-old daughter with his second wife Norma Lundholm, proved to be the greatest tragedy of Djerassi’s life. “That was just a gut-wrenching tragedy of enormous proportions,” Dale said. Djerassi founded the Djerassi Resident Artists Program to honor Pamela, who was a poet and painter. “He shared his love and his grief very publically,” Margot Knight, executive director of the program, said.
Djerassi’s passion for the arts blossomed later in life, in part due to the encouragement of his third wife, poet and biographer Diane Middlebrook H’99. Phil Jordan, Kenyon’s president from 1975 to 1995, said of the couple: “They just shared so many interests and supported each other in those interests.” Despite being the author of around 1,200 academic articles, Djerassi eventually chose to wind down his scientific career in favor of becoming a patron of the arts and an artist himself. Many consider Djerassi’s collection of the works of abstract painter Paul Klee to be the largest privately held Klee collection in the world. Additionally, Djerassi wrote five novels and numerous short stories, poems and plays.
Brant Russell ’02, now an assistant professor of drama at the University of Cincinnati, directed a reading of Djerassi’s play, Insufficiency, at Kenyon in 2012. “The one word I would use to describe him is generous,” Russell said of Djerassi. “He was generous with his time. He was generous with his insight. His output is generous — he was an extremely prolific writer and thinker.” If any single tendency held constant throughout Djerassi’s life, it was his compulsion to create. “He was not only a brilliant scientist, but also one of these Renaissance men,” trustee Alan Rothenberg ’67 P’96 H’10 said. “He was constantly reinventing himself.”
Carl Djerassi is survived by his son Dale Djerassi, his step-daughter Leah Middlebrook and his grandson Alexander Djerassi.