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I have my friend Karen to thank for meeting one of the eminent persons of our century. Carl Djerassi played a leading role in the society, because he discovered the anti baby pill. As I met him in May 2013, I couldn’t believe he shortly become 90 years. He was mentally fit and we had a nice summer day all together in my house with interesting discussions and a lot of laughter.
Here a report from Karen Ostertag
Few people can claim to have had a more fundamental impact on women‘s personal lives, modern family structures and global demographics than chemist and multi-disciplinary thinker Carl Djerassi. World-famous for his contribution to the invention of the birth control pill, Djerassi has complemented his numerous scientific achievements with an exceptional dedication to the arts in his later years: as an author, playwright and distinguished art collector.
With his major contribution to the development of the oral contraceptive pill in 1951, Carl Djerassi significantly changed the life of women and the dynamics of relationships. Released at a time of social and political upheaval, the pill empowered women to control contraception, pursue a career and postpone having a child or more children. While there have been other methods of contraception before, the pill was the first one that was fairly reliable and which women could use on their own terms.
Carl Djerassi looks back on quite an eventful life.
Born in Vienna in 1923, during the tumultuous period between the world wars, Djerassi had to emigrate to Bulgaria and later to the USA to escape the Nazi regime at age 14. His superb grades at an American school in Sofia allowed him to get a college scholarship without even finishing high school. He graduated as a chemistry major from Kenyon College, Ohio, intending to follow in his parents‘ footsteps and to become a physician. As he could not afford to study medicine, he accepted a position as junior chemist at pharmaceutical giant Ciba in New Jersey, where he developed one of the first two antihistamines, tripelennamine, at age 19.
After receiving a research scholarship and earning his PHD in Chemistry in Wisconsin with a focus on steroids, he started to work on the synthesis of cortisone gained from plants in a small team at Syntex in Mexico. Djerassi has called this time „the most productive 2 years“ of his life. It was during this period that he achieved his most influential scientific breakthrough. In 1951, he succeeded to synthesize norethisterone, the first artificial progesterone that maintained effective when taken orally. Its natural counterpart is produced by the body to prevent ovulation during pregnancy. While natural progesterone loses its effect when ingested, norethisterone remains biologically active and can be produced in large amounts. Taken up by women‘s rights activists Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick, as well as biologist Gregory Pincus, Djerassi’s discovery directly led to the development of the first birth control pill changing the world for women as we knew it.
Djerassi has received over 30 honory doctorates, he is the only American scientist who has been awarded with both the US National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology. However, he is far from resting on his laurels. In the mid-80s he started to write novels and theatre plays coining the genres „science-in-theatre“ and „science-in-fiction“. Through his storytelling, Djerassi aims to „smuggle“ expert knowledge and scientific topics into the public discourse addressing social and cultural ramifications of scientific developments.
The Wolf Prize is an international award granted in Israel, that has been presented most years since 1978 to living scientists and artists for “achievements in the interest of mankind and friendly relations among people … irrespective of nationality, race, colour, religion, sex or political views.”
Photo: Karen Ostertag
In one of his recent plays c alled „ICSI“, for instance, Djerassi has dealt with another cultural shift regarding the separation of sex and reproduction. „For the last 50 years, the leitmotif was contraception. The present 50 years, it‘s conception,“ as he pointed out in an interview with the Guardian. More and more women in the western world wait until their mid-30s to become parents. As the likelihood of getting pregnant decreases with age, methods like IVF (in vitro fertilization) and ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) become more important. Djerassi thinks eventually the pill will get obsolete. Women will be able to freeze their eggs in their twenties, get sterilized to eliminate the need of contraception and withdraw their eggs later when they are ready to have a child. Naturally, the possibilities of these methods come with a new set of ethical questions to be dealt
By Karen Ostertag
I miss the fact that we don’t mail each other back and forth every day, no matter where Carl was as a tireless guest speaker and reader from his own works – he died on the 30th January; his last message was “I feel bad”. The cancer was too advanced to be manageable anymore. After three years of hoping and non-stop planning for the future, a full work schedule to the last, the end of the illusion had finally arrived. His ashes were scattered in the same creek on his ranch** as those of his daughter Pamela and his third wife, Diane Middlebrook *. That is what happened. But I will not attend the funeral with hundreds of guests in early March. However, the poignant invitation to it should be shown here, because his huge ranch is in WOODSIDE near San Francisco.
As a result, he taught and conducted research for nearly 50 years at Stanford University, where he published more than 1200 scientific papers. In the meantime, several hundred artists have benefited from this foundation. The Foundation was after all dedicated to his daughter Pamela, who committed suicide because of a supposed inadequacy as an artist. Her suicide at 28 remained the trauma of his life. But I’m racing ahead. I should start with the beginning of our friendship because it was intense in a nutshell and began typical Djerassi fashion.
In 2012, crutches I had developed were presented at the Vienna Museum of Applied Arts under the theme of design and health. The exhibition posters were displayed right on entry, so Carl could not miss them when he came to his native Vienna, where he had an apartment in addition to those in London and San Francisco. He wanted these crutches, immediately. The walking stick, he used because of a stiff leg was no longer sufficient for him. He was outraged that his online order did not work, he did everything right! Finally, it was discovered that his US notebook was not set up for it.
Carl Djerassi got to know me very quickly, as if he wanted to show everything that makes him straightaway. As if we did not have enough time to get to know each other. Oh, I got to know him. After only a few days he was continuously sending pages and pages by mail of his “very latest autobiography”, just as he received them from the translator. He wrote in English; he felt more secure in English after 75 years in the USA. A violent impact followed promptly because, as an experienced journalist (which I also am), I immediately set about editing these daily incoming texts thoroughly. The corrections and changes of entire paragraphs dyed his manuscript pages bright red. What a misunderstanding! I should get to know him. Do not correct him, when he doesn’t even trust his own publisher! Yet he finally graced this very last autobiography with one of my portraits of him – his last book, which was published last November by Imperial Press: From the Pill to the Pen
He plowed through the said community with his own social rules at the highest level, which precedes the mocking of the rules that to him were ultimately of no consequence and according to which he did not live. On the contrary, he collected and picked up at the edges of other communities, pushed his way into them and he began to concentrate on this. Otherwise he would have got bored and he didn’t really trust other people at the top of his own profession and they didn’t trust him, as he added. He was too non-conformist, too little monotheistic, too engaged and interested in many other things: For example, in music and other arts. His collection of Paul Klee works, the most extensive in the world, is legendary, as were his purchases of works of art wherever they caught his eye.
Austria dedicated a stamp to him in 2005 as an official postage stamp – and for the first time they gave him an Austrian passport.
It turned out that Carl was not really Austrian but Bulgarian, like his father. As, although he was born in Vienna; he fled with his mother to the divorced father in Bulgaria before later travelling from there to the United States. He had barely arrived there when he was admitted to the university, due to misunderstandings in the translations of his papers, but with a dazzling testimony from the Bulgarian school, at age 16! A wonderful coup as he found it, he did not “of course enlighten” them about this misunderstanding. Thus his successful academic career was also very much a heater for his ego. He has received numerous honorary doctorates and each one was a welcome addition to his tally – he disputed this, conceding that I might be partly right, but not completely.
The 32nd honorary doctorate was awarded to him by the University of Frankfurt on his 90th birthday. In his acceptance speech at the packed auditorium he remarked: “I know that this honorary doctorate is due to the fact that I am now 90. 31 other universities may have had a different reason. “He had expected much earlier
ceremony from Frankfurt, not least because he worshiped the great son of the city, Theodor Wiesenthal, better known as Adorno, and had created a monument to him – and thus also the city of Frankfurt – in his book “Four Jews on Parnassus”.
Djerassi was first and foremost primarily a guest speaker. Not a week went by when he didn’t have lectures somewhere in the world. Either he spoke about the pill, the future of human reproduction and the opportunities for working women by freezing their own eggs and reproduction without sex or, more often, he organised readings, as he was prolific publishing book after book: Autobiographies, novels and plays. *** When his appointments were within Europe, he asked me to attend to listen and of course to take photographs. And thus I experienced, as he did, his science made the core of general considerations, contrary to the creed of the community of equals. Overall this community was not deprived of its veracity, but also often experienced Djerassi circumnavigations as cheerful eruptions. He also starred in his plays, especially in “Killer flowers”, the story of an inexplicable murder: There is champagne in the circle of chemistry professors, but two of the three are finally dead. The ravishing conclusion that he himself does not understand, how you can arrive at death by adding up champagne bubbles, belongs to one of Djerassi’s typical punch lines. You don’t miss the investigation of the murder, but you learn a lot about the making of champagne and the immense importance of the size of the individual bubbles and their occurrence in volume terms.
For him I was a wonderful screen and I was very willing to be that. A little big man deployed all his charm, so that I would listen to him and admire him as far as possible. On one of his stopovers with me, he thus brought a video recently made of him by an Austrian station with him. It was just stupid that after several loops, and after I could recite all the passages of the video by heart, the thing was still stuck in the machine: Devastating. A true Viennese he loved all kinds of desserts, especially dumplings with poppy seeds and vanilla. Every time he was in San Francisco or in his London apartment for a long time, he missed this palate-clogging staple. Since the import of all food into the US is prohibited, he often had to deprive himself for months until his next trip home to Vienna. So I came up with the idea of sending him dumplings to San Francisco on his 89th birthday – with the diplomatic service. My friend, Dr Hanns Schumacher, today Permanent Representative of Germany to the United Nations in Geneva, grudgingly managed this and only “because it is for Carl Djerassi”. He had to send the dumplings as a diplomatic pouch to the German Consulate General in San Francisco. A General Consul is not generally, however, there to receive forbidden imports and also pass them on! Oh well.
However, he seemed to view it as a great honour to bring Professor Djerassi the dumplings with vanilla sauce and poppy paste in person; unfortunately, Carl was not at home, but he found them a short time later in front of his door. At that moment, which he would have greatly enjoyed, he was with his personal trainer in the garage, where he undertook a series of endless tricks with battle ropes, his extremely strenuous physical exercise. His surprise and joy were worth every effort. Carl hastened to give the Consul General a signed copy of his latest book in person – after eating the dumplings.
Carl, I’ll miss you!
A man who published a book titled “How I beat Coca Cola” must be missed.
Carl Djerassi bought in the nineteenhundredsixties his first artwork from Paul Klee with the title “horse and man” for 18 000 US$ . This was the start of one of the biggest Paul Klee collection worldwide
Albertina Vienna exebition Paul Klee 2008
© VBK, Wien 2009 / Albertina, Wien – Promised gift of the Carl Djerassi Art Trust II
SFMOMA has lost a truly great friend in Carl Djerassi — an exceptionally brilliant man who counted the work of Swiss-born modernist Paul Klee among his many passions. Owing to Carl‘s generosity, SFMOMA‘s early 20th-century holdings are distinguished by one of the world‘s great repositories of Klee‘s art, which we will continue to make publicly available on an ongoing basis when we reopen in 2016,“ said Neal Benezra, director of SFMOMA.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
copyright Karen Ostertag