Carl Djerassi

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Carl Djerassi

Carl Djerassi
Born(1923-10-29) October 29, 1923 (age 88)
Vienna, Austria
ResidenceUS
CitizenshipUS
NationalityAustrian
FieldsChemist
Known forsynthesis of norethisterone,
the first orally highly active progestin
used in one of the first three oral contraceptive pills
 
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Carl Djerassi

Carl Djerassi
Born(1923-10-29) October 29, 1923 (age 88)
Vienna, Austria
ResidenceUS
CitizenshipUS
NationalityAustrian
FieldsChemist
Known forsynthesis of norethisterone,
the first orally highly active progestin
used in one of the first three oral contraceptive pills

Carl Djerassi (born October 29, 1923, Vienna) is an Austrian-American chemist, novelist, and playwright best known for his contribution to the development of oral contraceptive pills (OCPs). Djerassi is emeritus professor of chemistry at Stanford University.

He participated in the invention in 1951, together with Mexican Luis E. Miramontes and Mexican-Hungarian George Rosenkranz, of the progestin norethindrone—which, unlike progesterone, remained effective when taken orally and was far stronger than the naturally occurring hormone. His preparation was first administered as an oral contraceptive to animals by Gregory Pincus and Min Chueh Chang and to women by John Rock. Djerassi remarked that he did not have birth control in mind when he synthesized norethisterone—"not in our wildest dreams… did we imagine (it)".

Djerassi is also the author of several novels in the "science-in-fiction" genre, including Cantor's Dilemma, in which he explores the ethics of modern scientific research through his protagonist, Dr. Cantor. He also wrote Chemistry in Theatre: Insufficiency, Phallacy or both which demonstrate the potential pedagogic value of using dialogic style and plot structure of plays with special focus on chemistry.

Contents

Early life

Patent of the first orally highly active progestin, which led to the development of the oral contraceptive, elected to the USA Inventors Hall of Fame

Carl Djerassi was born in Vienna, Austria.[1] His mother was Alice Friedmann, an Ashkenazi Viennese Jew with roots in Galicia, and his father was Dr. Samuel Djerassi, a Bulgarian Sephardic Jew. Samuel Djerassi was a physician who specialized in treating syphilis with the existing arsenical drugs. His successful practice in Sofia was limited to a few wealthy patients, whose treatment lasted for years.

Following his parents' divorce, Djerassi and his mother moved to Vienna to take advantage of the better school system. Until age fourteen, he attended the same realgymnasium that Sigmund Freud had attended many years earlier; he spent summers in Bulgaria with his father. After the Anschluss, his father briefly remarried his mother in 1938 to allow Carl to escape the Nazi regime and flee to Bulgaria, where he lived with his father for a year. During his time in Bulgaria, Djerassi attended the American College of Sofia. A few years later, Djerassi arrived with his mother in the United States, nearly penniless—they had only $20 in their pockets, which was swindled from them by a taxicab driver. Djerassi's mother worked in a group practice in upstate New York. In 1949 his father emigrated to the United States and eventually settled near his son in San Francisco.

Djerassi briefly attended Tarkio College (now defunct), then studied chemistry at Kenyon College, which is famous for literary criticism and the Kenyon Review but not known for chemistry. He graduated summa cum laude. In 1945, he earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin.[1]

Career

Djerassi worked for CIBA in New Jersey, developing Pyribenzamine (tripelenamine), his first patent and the first commercial antihistamine.

In 1949 Djerassi became associate director of research at Syntex in Mexico City and remained there through 1951. He worked on a new synthesis of cortisone based on diosgenin, a steroid sapogenin derived from a Mexican wild yam. His team later synthesized norethisterone (norethindrone), the first highly active progestin analogue that was effective when taken by mouth. This became part of one of the first successful combined oral contraceptive pills (COCPs). COCPs became known colloquially as the birth-control pill, or simply, the Pill. From 1952-1959 he was a faculty member of Wayne State University's Chemistry department in Detroit.

In 1959 Djerassi became a professor of chemistry at Stanford University and the president of Syntex Laboratories in Mexico City and Palo Alto, California. The Syntex connection brought wealth to Djerassi. He bought a large tract of land in Woodside, California, started a cattle ranch, and assembled a large art collection. He started a new company, Zoecon, which focused on pest control without insecticides, using modified insect growth hormones to stop insects from metamorphosing from the larval stage to the pupal and adult stages. He sold Zoecon to Occidental Petroleum, which later sold it to Sandoz. Part of Zoecon survives in Dallas, Texas, making products to control fleas and other pests.

In 1965 at Stanford Univeristy, bacterial geneticist Joshua Lederberg, computer scientist Edward Feigenbaum, and Djerassi devised the computer program DENDRAL (dendritic algorithm) for the elucidation of the molecular structure of unknown organic compounds taken from known groups of such compounds, such as the alkaloids and the steroids.[2] This was a prototype for expert systems and the first use of artificial intelligence in biomedical research.[2]

Personal life

In 1977 he began a relationship with noted biographer and university professor Diane Middlebrook, and in 1985 they were married. By 2002 she had decided to retire, to work full-time on her research, and she convinced Djerassi to also retire that year.[3] He became an emeritus professor. They divided their time between homes in San Francisco and London, until her death on 15 December 2007.[3]

On July 5, 1978, Djerassi's artist daughter Pamela (from his second marriage, to Norma Lundholm), committed suicide. With Middlebrook's help, Djerassi then considered how he could help living artists, rather than collecting works of dead ones. He donated half of his Klee collection to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and half to the Albertina in Vienna, effective on his death. He visited existing artist colonies, such as Yaddo and MacDowell, and decided to create his own. He closed his cattle ranch, converted the barn and houses to residential and work space for artists, brought in a prize-winning chef, and moved his home to an office building in San Francisco that he had renovated, converting one floor into a posh apartment, where he displayed part of his art collection and hosted a literary salon, initially referred to as SMIP (Syntex Made it Possible).[4]

Awards and honors

In 1973 Djerassi was awarded the National Medal of Science[5] by President Nixon for his work on the Pill. The award was somewhat ironic in that his name at the time was on the infamous "Nixon's enemies list", which was compiled by Charles Colson and Nixon. He learned this from an article in the San Francisco Examiner, several months later.

In 1975 Djerassi was awarded the Perkin Medal. In 1978 he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.[6] In 1991 he was awarded the National Medal of Technology for "his broad technological contributions to solving environmental problems; and for his initiatives in developing novel, practical approaches to insect control products that are biodegradable and harmless." In 1992 he was awarded the Priestley Medal.

Austria issued a postage stamp with Djerassi's picture on it, commemorating his 80th birthday.[1] The Austrian government also sent him a new Austrian passport. He was awarded the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art, First Class, in 1999.

Djerassi is a member of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists[7] and is chairman of the Pharmanex Scientific Advisory Board.[8]

Djerassi Glacier on Brabant Island in Antarctica is named after Carl Djerassi.[9]

Djerassi was awarded the 2009 Alecrin Prize, in Vigo, Spain.

He was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society of London in 2010 [10] and received the Edinburgh Medal in 2011.[11]

Books

Non-fiction

Fiction

Science-in-fiction

Djerassi describes some of his novels as "science-in-fiction",[12][13] fiction which portrays the lives of real scientists, with all their accomplishments, conflicts, and aspirations. The genre is also referred to as Lab lit.

Drama

Bibliography

References

External links