As a chemist, Carl Djerassi developed the first synthesis of a steroid oral contraceptive. It became “the Pill” and changed the dynamics of human sex and reproduction.
Since the mid-1980s, Djerassi has developed a second career as a writer. Most of his five novels and 11 plays are exercises in what he calls “intellectual smuggling” — explaining scientific processes to non-scientists and exploring the ethical and moral implications of science and technology.
Djerassi calls his genre science-in-fiction because, unlike science fiction, the science he write about is real. Bridging the sciences and humanities is critical to understanding the world, he said, but it can be controversial among specialists in both fields.
“Science is threatening to many people in the humanities,” Djerassi, 90, said in an interview last week from his home in California, where he had just returned after a busy lecture schedule in Europe, where he also has homes in Vienna and London.
“Many (scientific) colleagues have criticized me, saying I am washing dirty lab coats in public,” he added. “And I say that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
Djerassi will be in Lexington for four events Feb. 13-15 at the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University. His visit is sponsored by a host of UK academic departments, from Chemistry and Pharmacy to Theatre.
His trip was arranged by Dr. Sylvia Cerel-Suhl of Lexington, who got to know Djerassi while she was in medical school at Stanford University. She was one of his teaching assistants, and they have been friends ever since.
Djerassi was born in Vienna in 1923, the son of Jewish physicians, and grew up in Bulgaria. He came to America as the Nazis were coming to power, and he eventually earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin in 1945.
After developing one of the first commercial antihistamines in the 1940s, Djerassi went to Mexico City, where he and several colleagues made their contraceptive breakthrough in 1951. He went on to work in both industry and academia, joining the Stanford faculty in 1960 and helping to develop the Stanford Industrial Park.
Djerassi is one of two American chemists to have won both the National Medal of Science (for “the Pill” synthesis) and the National Medal of Technology (for new approaches to insect control). He is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and many foreign academies. He has a long list of honors, from honorary degrees and European medals. Austria put his picture on a postage stamp in 2005.
Djerassi said he had always been interested in literature, but he didn’t begin writing until about age 60 after his girlfriend dumped him. “That really got me going,” he said.
He began writing a novel about their relationship. About the time he was finishing it a year later, the ex-girlfriend sent him flowers and asked to meet.
“Instead of sending her back flowers, I sent her the manuscript,” he said. “She was completely flabbergasted. It brought us together, and we got married.”
The girlfriend who became his third wife was Diane Middlebrook, a Stanford English professor who wrote critically acclaimed biographies of the poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath.
Djerassi said he decided to close his Stanford lab and devote full-time to writing and lecturing in 1985, when, soon after his marriage, he got a serious cancer diagnosis.
“I wanted to use fiction to talk about things, scientific and technological, that in my opinion were important,” he said. He survived cancer, but it claimed Middlebrook in 2007.
Many of Djerassi’s novels and plays deal with the ethical and societal implications of science — such as the separation of sex from reproduction — as well as the collegial and competitive way science is practiced.
“Ninety percent of the general public thinks they’re not interested (in science), or thinks they don’t understand it or are afraid of it,” he said, adding that most fiction tends to portray scientists as either geeks or idiot savants.
“I thought if I put it in the guise of fiction, I could make it sufficiently interesting that people would read it,” he said. “And they would have learned something without knowing it.”
If you go
Carl Djerassi in Lexington.
- Noon, Feb. 13, UK’s Hilary J. Boone Center. Djerassi will speak about academic and business relationships in science to a luncheon. Cost: $30. Reservations deadline Feb. 5. Email: Sylvia4H.email@example.com.
- 4:30 p.m., Feb. 13, Worsham Theatre, U.K. Student Center. Djerassi gives a free, public lecture, “Science on the Page and Stage.” The first 100 students there will get a free copy of one of his books, which he will sign afterward.
- 3:30 p.m., Feb. 14, Room 102 Cowgill Center at Transylvania. Djerassi will give a lecture, “The Divorce of Sex from Reproduction: The New Facts of Life.”
- 3 p.m. , Feb., 15, the Art Museum at UK. Actors will read his play “Insufficiency.” A reception with Djerassi will follow.