Father of the birth-control pill talks science, art and the life of the intellectual

Oct. 31, 2012

by David Tenenbaum

Photo: Carl Djerassi

Djerassi discusses aspects or art, science and intellectualism.

Photo: Bryce Richter

As he received a Distinguished Alumni Award from the Wisconsin Alumni Association in Madison last week, Carl Djerassi took time to talk about his many passions.

Born in Vienna in 1923, Djerassi emigrated to the United States in 1939, and received his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1945.

In 1951, he and two colleagues at Syntex in Mexico City synthesized a steroid hormone that was the basis for the first oral contraceptive. In 1960, Djerassi became a professor of chemistry at Stanford University, where he is still teaching after becoming emeritus in 2002.

In the 1980s, anguished by a lover's rejection, Djerassi started writing poetry; a reading from that work, finally finished and published as "Diary of Pique," was sponsored last week by the Creative Writing Program on campus.

Djerassi flourished in his new literary career, and his  plays and fiction have been widely performed and translated. His first novel, "Cantor's Dilemma," dealt with ethics in science.

"Four Jews on Parnassus" (2008) featured imagined, posthumous conversation between four famous European Jews of Djerassi's generation and served as a vehicle for examining a series of personal, scientific and cultural issues.

A noted collector of the art of Paul Klee, Djerassi has also sponsored an artist's colony and, at age 89, has just finished writing his second autobiography.

Here are a few highlights of a 75-minute conversation:

On the impact of the pill

"In the new autobiography, I devote an entire chapter to, what if the pill had never been invented? People think the pill should be either credited or blamed for the sexual revolution; that's a gross over-simplification. People forget the '60s were the decade of hippie culture, drug culture, rock 'n roll culture and, most importantly the flowering of the women's movement. All these had something to do with sexual liberation.

"Abortion was illegal in the West, and a fear of pregnancy was used to enforce a moral code that many people were not prepared to follow. The idea that human beings are monogamous is false, there is good evidence that the vast majority of married people, male or female, at one stage or another, have outside affairs. Now with PCR [polymerase chain reaction], we know that most birds are not monogamous, either."

On the need to be first in science

"As science moves forward, there is always a moment where, if you don’t do it, someone else will. If Watson and Crick [discoverers of the structure of DNA in 1953] had not done it, three or four months later, it would have been accomplished by Rosalind Franklin or Linus Pauling.

"Science is an Olympics with only gold medals, and that has all kinds of repercussions, and fundamentally they are not very good ones. I have often talked about ambition, many of my novels and plays deal with priority struggles. 'Calculus' was about one of the most vicious conflicts, between Leibniz and Newton [who both "invented" calculus in the late 17th century], two of the greatest scientists of the era. I raise the question, in the case of Newton, can you be a (expletive) and be a great scientist? The answer is yes, and that's quite unfortunate."

On being a European intellectual

"When I came to the United States, I wanted nothing more than to assimilate, and eventually I thought my European roots had petrified. In the 1990s, my fiction and my autobiography were immediately translated into German, and I was invited to lectures and openings. I started speaking German again after 50 years. I wondered, how come I became a writer, when scientists were never  permitted to use the first person, and I never wrote anything until the age 62 or 63. Some people say, 'You have a novel in you,' but I not was like that at all. It was probably my schooling in Vienna. Even though I left at 14, I had four years of Latin, I went to the museums, and I had the great advantage of being brought up with no TV."

On autobiography as fiction, and fiction as autobiography

"I realized rather soon that autobiography has to be a form of fiction, it's auto-mythology. Whether you like it or not, you are undressing in public, and you want to show your best features, so either you don’t talk about certain things that don’t show you in your best light, or you describe them the way you wish they had happened. You repeat this often enough to yourself, and all of a sudden you start to believe it. I have written a number of novels and plays, and I realize a lot about me is hidden in every one of them; in the characters male and female. Fiction permitted me to be completely open. I started to uncover the Rosetta stone to Carl Djerassi. My type of fiction writing is autobiography wearing a mask."