Taking the pill literally

Carl Djerassi first shot to fame in 1951 when he produced progestin norethindrone, an oral contraceptive which came to be known as the Pill.

By
June 25, 2010 18:33
Carl Djerassi. Drama, and fun, in science.

carl djerassi 311. (photo credit: Barry Davis)

If the adage that fortune favors the brave holds any water, Prof. Carl Djerassi must be among the more courageous people around. The Stanford University emeritus professor of chemistry, who was here earlier this month at the invitation of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, appears to have lived a charmed life.

Djerassi was born to two secular Jewish physicians in Vienna in 1923. His father was Bulgarian and, after his parents divorced, Djerassi spent his summers at his father’s home. At 16 he fled from the Nazis, eventually arriving in New York with his mother without a dollar to his name. But to paraphrase another saying, when the going gets tough, the tough ultimately get writing and in recent years he has been doing a lot of that, and to great acclaim.

However, Djerassi’s first literary foray in his new country was aimed at an audience of one, albeit of elevated status, and involved a generous helping of chutzpah. “When I arrived in the States I wrote Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the president at that time, and I said: ‘Dear Mrs. Roosevelt, I need a scholarship.’ Can you imagine? First of all, the chances of her ever getting it is very slight, and getting an answer would be even slighter.”

But the First Lady did receive the teenager’s missive and Djerassi got a reply, albeit written by Mrs. Roosevelt’s secretary, which paved the way to a scholarship and a place at a college in Missouri. “I didn’t even know such a place existed,” he said.

Djerassi first shot to fame in 1951 when, along with Luis E. Miramontes of Mexico and Hungarian George Rosenkranz, he produced progestin norethindrone, an oral contraceptive which came to be known worldwide simply as the Pill. The discovery propelled Djerassi into the global limelight, bringing with it considerable financial rewards and a string of national and international awards, including the US National Medal of Science which he received from president Richard Nixon, and in 1978 he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He also engaged successfully in the modification of insect growth hormones to control fleas and other insect pests.

But that was all quite some time ago. In the interim, and particularly in more recent years, Djerassi has devoted much of his time to developing a burgeoning literary career. It was his writing and the theatrical and musical performance thereof, rather than his glittering scientific career, that was the subject of his Van Leer Jerusalem Institute address last week.

Djerassi regaled us with stories of his various books and plays, which appear to appeal to audiences around the globe, and many have been translated into dozens of languages. For Djerassi this is both a source of pride and, in local terms, a source of great frustration.

“My plays have been translated into Spanish, French, German and even Chinese, but no one, absolutely no one, has shown any interest in this country,” he said when we met at Mishkenot Sha’ananim. Djerassi finds that far more than merely mystifying. “I feel flabbergasted and insulted,” he declares flatly. “So much of my writing concerns Jews and Israelis – like, for example, Four Jews on Parnassus. So why isn’t there any interest in Israel?”

Djerassi’s feelings of rejection by the Israeli establishment have also left us bereft of a priceless artistic treasure. “I have a large collection of works by [20th century Swiss-German painter] Paul Klee. I have given works to various museums around the world but none to the Israel Museum, which would have been a natural home for them. It’s a shame there is no interest in my literary work here.”

AS THE TITLE of the tome suggests. Four Jews on Parnassus – which includes a large number of Klee reproductions – offers some insight on the lives, thoughts and emotions of a quartet of Jews, all leading figures in their fields from the 20th century – German-born American sociologist, philosopher and musicologist Theodor W. Adorno, compatriot philosopher, sociologist, literary critic, translator and essayist Walter Benjamin, German-born philosopher and historian Gershom Scholem, a kabbalist who became the first professor of Jewish mysticism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Austrian-born American composer Arnold Schoenberg – an illustrious bunch indeed.

Unusually, the book is written in direct speech form, which Djerassi feels offers a more “easily grasped and humanizing view of four extraordinary intellectuals.” That humanistic approach is a common thread that runs through Djerassi’s work, both as a scientist and a man of letters. Over half a century ago he noted that one of the benefits of the contraceptive pill was to liberate the woman, while also making men take more responsibility for producing offspring.

The dialogue format of Four Jews on Parnassus also lends itself to a musical genre one would not normally associate with a man two decades beyond the official retirement age. Djerassi’s Van Leer presentation included images of the designs of the covers for his books and plays in various languages, as well as video clips of excerpts of performances and a couple of rap numbers based on Djerassi’s texts. “I wouldn’t necessarily say I am a great fan of rap but I think it suits the direct speech format of the book. Rap is a direct musical genre, so I think that fits quite well.”

Djerassi says he also feels something of an illicit affinity with rappers. “Rap artists are sort of literary smugglers; they introduce their message through music. I do the same with my books, with scientific subjects.”

Djerassi says his writing work is a form of “science in fiction” rather than science fiction. “Nobody really talks about science in literature. You have writers who may have some scientific theme in a book, but if you’d ask them what they know about science, they would say next to nothing, and that they only learned about a specific scientific subject for a specific book. I want to smuggle science out and into the literary world, so people can learn about it through my novels and plays.”

While people with no connection to the world of science may consider the field sterile and unemotional, Djerassi manages to convey a sense of heightened drama in his works including, for instance, his 1991 novel Cantor’s Dilemma in which a distinguished cell biologist and his best student win the Nobel Prize for their cancer research but are suspected of falsifying experimental data. One critic called the work “an absorbing view of big science at its seediest.”

Djerassi not only finds drama in science, but also more than a modicum of fun. The Van Leer session included a clip of intracytoplasmic sperm injection, an in vitro fertilization procedure in which a single sperm is injected directly into an egg. The graphic ostensibly dry portrayal of the procedure was accompanied by comic commentary by Djerassi and his then wife Diane Middlebrook.

BESIDES HIS WRITING and academic work, music has been an ever-present element in the scientist-writer’s long life. Considering his city of birth – rap departure notwithstanding – most of Djerassi’s musical interest lies in the classical field. When he was invited to be a guest on the BBC’s prestigious Desert Island Discs program a few years ago, for example, his playlist included Mussorgsky’s “The Leaves Were Sadly Rustling,” Placido Domingo performing Verdi’s “Elle e Pura” with the Vienna Philharmonic and Beethoven’s Quartet in F Major.

There was, however, one strikingly contrasting selection which may have owed more to good neighborliness than musical leanings, Djerassi’s penchant for the unexpected notwithstanding. “I also chose a number by [Canadian ’60s rock-folk singer-songwriter] Neil Young,” says Djerassi. “He has lived on the ranch next to mine in northern California for many years and, when the wind was blowing in the right direction, I sometimes used to hear him jamming with his band.”

That wasn’t the only thing that wafted over to the Djerassi farmstead. “He invited me over to his studio there once and showed me his secret drawer, where he kept his marijuana and other stuff. He was a bit of junkie back in the ’60s. I do like his songs and he is a wonderful person. He has a severely retarded son whom he takes everywhere with him.”

Djerassi has also had his fair share of family woes. His third wife – “the love of my life” as he put it in his Van Leer presentation – English professor and biographer Diane Middlebrook died three years ago, and his artist daughter committed suicide in 1978. He has a son, a documentary filmmaker, from a previous marriage. On the other hand an accident he had as a young man, he feels, may well have saved his life. “And I have a fused knee from a skiing accident. When it happened to me, it seemed like a terrible tragedy, yet it kept me out of the army. So in that respect you can say that I was lucky.”

Today, Djerassi uses a highly ornate walking stick to get around, but otherwise looks and sounds remarkably youthful for his age.

Despite his secular upbringing and declared secular view of life, there are plenty of Jewish elements in Djerassi’s work and life. As with most emigres, issues of cultural identity also come to the fore and the writer addresses this in the context of Four Jews on Parnassus. “Take Walter Benjamin, for instance. He never knew whether he was a German Jew or a Jewish German, that’s a very important distinction. I have also started speculating about that about myself – whether I am an American Viennese or a Viennese American. Adorno was born to a Catholic mother, so as far as the Jews were concerned he wasn’t Jewish. He was baptized and later, of course, the Nazis called him the Jew Wiesengrund [Adorno’s birth name].”

Djerassi is also aware of the perils of a nonreligious ethos. “My mother’s family were Viennese so when the Nazis came and told the Jews they didn’t belong there they had nothing to fall back on. They were secular Jews and had no religion to fall back on. All those Jewish immigrants, whether they went to America or Israel or anywhere else, never really assimilated into their adopted country. In our family we had a Christmas tree and we didn’t celebrate Hanukka.”

Djerassi has had homes in San Francisco and London for some years and, more recently, he set up a new base in the city of his birth. “I toyed with having a European home in Berlin or Vienna. Berlin is certainly, in artistic terms, an exciting place to be in, but I was drawn to Vienna.”

Surely, however, there must be some painful memories for him there. “Not really. I didn’t suffer from anti-Semitism as a child. I went to a school that was over 40 percent Jewish. And I don’t have a problem with most Austrians, only those old enough to have been around during the Holocaust.”

As his name suggests, Djerassi’s paternal antecedents were not exactly Austrian. His father’s forbears were exiled from Spain at the time of the Inquisition and became part of the spreading Ladino exodus. With his Sephardi lineage, secular upbringing notwithstanding, as his 13th birthday loomed, Djerassi’s mother was contacted by the rabbi of the local Turkish synagogue and the lad found himself having to prepare for a full bar mitzva ceremony.

“I couldn’t read Hebrew, so I had to learn the Torah portion phonetically,” Djerassi recalls. “Neither my mother nor my father realized just how much all the ceremony involved, but I learned everything just the same.”

Shortly before the bar mitzva date, professional considerations added to the teenager’s workload. “Two weeks before the ceremony my father sent a telegram from Bulgaria saying he had a new syphilitic patient and that he wouldn’t be able to make it on that weekend. He specialized in venereal diseases and each patient meant a commitment for several years. So I had to learn the whole damn bar mitzva thing all over again, for a different week.”

Bar mitzva logistical hiccups apart, Djerassi appears have met his professional and life challenges with considerable resourcefulness, courage and skill. Financially secure and lauded in the worlds of science and literature, there doesn’t seem to be much more for him to achieve except, possibly, for a temporal landmark.

“I’d like to be the first centennial professor at Stanford University,” he says. “I think that would be quite something.”


Related Content