What's Next?

Father of the Pill, biotech executive, professor, art collector, prolific novelist -- and now playwright. Carl Djerassi can't stop.

November/December 1998

Reading time min

What's Next?

Photo: Jason Grow

Everybody’s a critic. Or so it seems tonight, after the first staged reading of Carl Djerassi’s first play in this bare San Francisco theater. The chemist turned entrepreneur turned playwright sits with the director and actors on a chilly, makeshift stage, the lights glaring in his eyes. It might as well be an interrogation cell.

The people in the audience have been asked to react to the play. They’re not holding back. Many don’t like the play’s main character, a scientist named Melanie Laidlaw who devises a way to impregnate herself by injecting her own egg with a single sperm. One woman calls Melanie "a cold fish." Others pick on scientific dialogue that has nothing to do with the characters’ desires. The play has plenty to say about intracytoplasmic sperm injection -- but what about emotional truth? "I didn’t believe the argument that [taking a man’s sperm] wasn’t theft," says one man.

Dapper, silver-haired and dignified, the 5-foot-7 Djerassi absorbs the audience’s critique of Menachem’s Seed. But the man best known as "the father of the Pill" stands his ground. "I hear what you’re saying," he tells them. "But this is my play."

You might think that at age 75 -- after synthesizing a contraceptive used worldwide by 80 million women, after winning every scientific honor in his field shy of a Nobel, after making a fortune in industry, after switching careers and writing five well-regarded novels -- you might think Djerassi doesn’t need this. The late hour. The cold theater. The verbal tomatoes.

But you’d be wrong. For throughout his life -- by circumstance, choice and perhaps unconscious design -- he has been an outsider, a self-described professional polygamist straddling disparate worlds, driven to strive for greatness in all of them.

The next day, Djerassi wakes up in his 15th floor apartment atop San Francisco’s Russian Hill, a large aerie with sweeping views of the Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, the jumble of downtown towers. The walls are hung with Klees and Calders. The ceiling is a mural painted with clouds, constellations -- and a molecular diagram of 17a-ethynyl-19-nortestosterone, better known as the Pill.

He’s dejected about the rough post-play critique. It’s early spring, just two weeks before another, more polished reading at a much larger venue. But after talking it over with his wife, fellow Stanford professor and best-selling biographer Diane Middlebrook, he sits down and, over the next few days, bangs out his 13th revision.

Djerassi has rewritten the plot of his own life time and again since arriving in the United States in 1939. A Jewish teen with a German-Viennese accent and a permanently damaged left knee, he traveled in steerage, landing in New York City with no money and no high school diploma. "You want to validate yourself twice or maybe three times over," Djerassi says. "You want to prove yourself in your new home where you’re invariably considered an outsider."

Before turning 20, he found work as a junior chemist in the pharmaceutical industry and got his name on the patent of one of the first antihistamines. By 23, he had his PhD from the University of Wisconsin, focusing on the synthesis and transformation of steroids, including sex hormones.

To make his name, he strategically renewed his outsider status, departing for the scientific outback of late 1940s Mexico City to lead research at a tiny firm named Syntex. By October 1951, a group led by the 28-year-old Djerassi had synthesized norethindrone, "a super-potent orally active progestational agent." It turned out to be the key ingredient in the Pill.

It took a decade for Djerassi’s chemistry to reach the marketplace as an oral contraceptive. Its social impact would be more like the atomic bomb than a mere pharmaceutical, its fallout helping foment the sexual and feminist revolutions.

Meanwhile, Djerassi grabbed one of academia’s lower rungs at Detroit’s Wayne State. He made the move pay off, winning the first of many major kudos, the American Chemical Society’s Award in Pure Chemistry in 1958, for new methods in establishing the structure of steroid molecules.

Recruited to Stanford in 1959, Djerassi displayed a genius not only for chemistry -- he helped establish the use of mass spectrometry in organic chemistry -- but for sheer productivity. He has authored more than 1,200 articles, many of them co-written with some 300 graduate students and postdoctoral colleagues from 52 countries. Between 1961 and 1976, he was cited in more academic journals than any other organic chemist in the world.

At the same time, the professor maintained a second career in industrial chemistry. He convinced Syntex to relocate from Mexico to Stanford Research Park. The company boomed, eventually spinning off Syva, which developed sophisticated drug screening, and Zoecon, which pioneered biological pest control. In addition to teaching and leading Stanford research, Djerassi was a top executive of all three companies. He reveled in what he called his professional bigamy.

Bigamy had its rewards. The soaring Syntex stock -- an original $2 share reached a value of $8,000 by 1993 -- afforded Djerassi a lifestyle as distinctive as his schedule was hectic. He accumulated 1,200 acres of redwoods, meadows and canyons in the Santa Cruz mountains near Woodside. He christened the spread SMIP Ranch -- for Syntex Made It Possible.

The biotech bull market also allowed Djerassi to amass an art collection including Picasso, Degas, Moore and especially Paul Klee. Eventually, he built one of the world’s largest private holdings of Klee, works now rotating between his home and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

If his chemistry revolutionized family planning, being "father of the Pill" also shaped Djerassi, drawing him into the politics and sociology of sex. In fact, he has been frustrated that America’s skittishness about sexual matters, combined with a litigious culture, have stymied advances in contraception. Since the late 1960s, he’s regularly lectured and written on the subject. For years he taught a popular undergraduate course, "biosocial aspects of birth control." In a 1994 journal article, he went so far as to argue that, since improvements in fertilization are outstripping those in contraception, men should store a stock of sperm early in life and then be vasectomized. "In the middle of the next century . . . sex will be purely for fun -- perhaps the greatest hedonistic and pleasurable thing humans can indulge in," he says. "Reproduction will be done under a microscope."

Energetic and demanding, Djerassi cultivates a sophisticated reserve (even doctoral students are not invited to call him Carl) and has a weakness for elegant ascots and silk shirts. But when it comes to sexual matters, the professor displays a playful, pointed candor. Over dinner in San Francisco, he holds forth on theatrical masturbation scenes, Viagra’s potential for women and methods for measuring erection rigidity. In his autobiography, he reveals that he fathered his daughter Pamela while still married to his first wife, leading to divorce and second marriage, which then produced his son, Dale, ’75.

Djerassi could have become another aging lion, leading a lab and continuing to collect kudos like the National Medal of Science (which he received in 1973 for synthesizing the first oral contraceptive) or the National Medal of Technology (1991, for Zoecon’s eco-sensitive insect control) or the Priestley Medal (1992, for contributions to chemistry and society, the American Chemical Society’s highest honor).

But two profound personal trials rerouted his trajectory.

In 1978, Djerassi’s daughter Pamela, a 28-year-old artist, committed suicide. Devastated, he consoled himself by establishing a resident artist program at SMIP ranch to honor her memory. The artist colony was funded partly by extensive sales from his art collection and supported by major donations of land and buildings. Over the years, nearly a thousand artists, from sculptors to poets, have spent monthlong fellowships there.

Romantic heartbreak led Djerassi to take up the literary arts himself. He’s quick to cite May 8, 1983, as the beginning of his life as a writer -- the date that Middlebrook left him for another man. "I, who had never composed a poem or written a word of fiction, decided to revenge myself on that polished poet and literature professor on her own turf."

By the time he and Middlebrook were reunited a year later (their marriage, in 1985, was his third), Djerassi’s literary revenge had resulted in a stack of poems and a 331-page roman à clef, Middles, "about the terrible lapse of amorous judgment by an elegant feminist." Middlebrook says she was "very annoyed" by the novel. "But I also saw that it had some very good literary qualities that he could develop."

The book never saw print, but it was enough to convince Djerassi that he had the desire and stamina to write fiction. Moreover, at 60-something, after a life lived on fast forward, he experienced a delayed midlife crisis. "If you make me sound like a perfectly satisfied scientist who now goes onto another area, I wouldn’t agree with you. I think the vast majority of scientists are never satisfied with their scientific reputation," he says. "There are never enough kudos."

So Djerassi set out to make his way into the literary world. Initially, he wrote short stories, primarily during summers abroad with Middlebrook. But after a 1985 cancer scare, he began devoting more time to writing, cutting back his campus research and finally closing his labs in 1992. (He remains a full professor and continues to teach one or two classes a year).

In fiction, Djerassi was doubly an outsider -- a literary neophyte in his 60s and an elite scientist. A regular at the opera and museums, he was not exactly in touch with popular culture. At one "achievement awards" ceremony, seated next to a man named Eastwood, he had to ask why the fellow was so besieged by autograph-seekers. "Are you for real?" replied steely-eyed Clint.

But Djerassi turned his background to advantage by writing almost entirely in a genre he dubbed science-in-fiction. Beyond describing actual scientific discoveries, he was determined to reveal "the tribal culture of science" -- how positions were gained, experiments funded, papers published and honors won.

His first novel, Cantor’s Dilemma (1989) explores how an older professor’s selection for the Nobel prize is shadowed by doubt when a rival can’t duplicate his lab results. It raises the question:was crucial data fudged? The book did well critically. "The novel’s rendering of the scientific establishment is so precise that anyone considering a career in science should be required to read it," wrote the New York Times reviewer. And it performed decently at the bookstore, too. The German edition was serialized in that nation’s largest newspaper.

Emboldened, Djerassi mapped out plans for a series of novels that would include recurring characters and depict the rarefied world of high-powered science. In The Bourbaki Gambit (1994), a group of graying scientists, forced to retire early, take revenge by publishing award-winning research under a collective pseudonym. Menachem’s Seed (1997), the tale of technologically transformed sperm that also spawned Djerassi’s first play, unfolds amid international conferences. NO, the last in the tetralogy, was published in the United States this fall. Written before the Viagra bombshell, the book follows a young research fellow from India, Renu Krishnan, whose hot new treatment for male impotence leads her to the presidency of a Palo Alto start-up. The company figures out how to deliver the neurotransmitter nitric oxide (chemical symbol: NO) to the penis.

The novels closely reflect Djerassi’s experience, from his struggles as an immigrant scientist to the ride atop a biotech rocket. The books also allow him to indulge his erotic imagination. His sex scenes take place in unconventional settings, including the Vienna opera house. But these are hardly bodice-rippers with a side order of science. Djerassi is a proto-feminist whose thinking has been influenced by Middlebrook, a professor of English and ex-chair of feminist studies at Stanford. He has created female characters who are both intellectually and sexually assertive -- from a scholarly septuagenarian seductress in The Bourbaki Gambit to Melanie, the autoerotic executive in Menachem’s Seed.

But most notably, the novels share a tough, unromantic view of scientists. "Each of us wants to be there first," says Celestine Price, a chemist who is a recurring character. "If someone should beat us, we break our backs trying to prove him wrong. Of course in science, having others trying to prove you wrong is what keeps us honest. But in the process, we do lust -- blood-lust, I think it’s called."

Having produced five novels and a play, Djerassi has begun to think of a literary legacy. In science, he notes, innovators are quickly surpassed. "At one point you are on top of the edifice. Pretty soon, people build on top of you, in front of you and on the sides of you," he says. "That does not necessarily happen in literature. Joyce’s Ulysses has not been covered up."

He has also smuggled fiction writing into the science classroom. Last winter, he taught a medical school course, "Ethical Discourse through Science-in-Fiction," which drew students from varied sciences. The stories produced by the class could have come straight out of Djerassi’s fictional world, from mentor-disciple lust to delaying a competitor’s publication by hanging it up in peer review. One tale, by chemistry doctoral student Shirley Lin, was the first fiction ever to appear in Chemical and Engineering News (July 27, 1998). Likewise, a story jointly written by the entire class was the first fiction published by the London-based journal Nature (June 11, 1998).

Some scientists wonder whether Djerassi’s fiction gets so much attention only because of his scientific reputation. Others have questioned what they see as his penchant for self-promotion. "He’s got his own web page for chrissakes," says chemistry graduate student Stephen Diehl. The website (www.djerassi.com) includes excerpts from reviews ("Probably the quintessential science novel of the past year . . . ") a schedule of his book signings and lectures, and the tagline, "The scientist who brought you the Pill . . . is now bringing you ‘science-in-fiction.’ "

If he’s guilty of anything, Djerassi says, it’s breaking the code of false humility expected of scientists. He insists that as a modest-selling author -- Cantor’s Dilemma took a decade to approach 100,000 copies sold -- he just does what’s necessary to bring attention to his work. He aspires to what he calls Flaubert’s readership, "the longer seller, not the best-seller."

The author’s famously competitive character is leavened with humor and self-awareness. He makes self-mocking cameo appearances in his own books. He’s "a good speaker, but a bit arrogant" reports Krishnan in no. "Even you must have heard of him, he publishes so damn much," says Price in Cantor’s Dilemma.

Longtime friend Roald Hoffmann, a Cornell chemistry professor, Nobel laureate and published poet, applauds Djerassi’s literary efforts. They set a much-needed example, Hoffman says, adding, "We’ve helped chemists come out of some emotional closets where they’ve put their creativice activities."

But can Djerassi ever be known as a writer -- or must he always be foremost, as Middlebrook lovingly labels him, "chemist"? He addresses the question in Marx Deceased (1996). A prize-winning author, obsessed with discovering his worth and escaping "the shadows and taints" of reputation, fakes his own death and starts his literary life over under a pseudonym.

The novel resonates with Djerassi’s own choice to start his intellectual life anew. But it also underscores the dilemma he faced as an author whose fame as a scientist smoothed the path to publication. The result, again, is outsider status. "Certainly [fiction] writers don’t consider me a member of their community," he says. "To them, I’m a scientist who is sort of butting into the field."

Last spring, even amid hurried revisions of his play, Djerassi taught a new course at Stanford, juggled transatlantic calls with his German translator and put together a European book tour. He’s already planning his next play, drawing from a 19th century text called Conversations on Chemistry, and his next book, a nonfiction work on the 50th anniversary of the Pill in 2001. His youthful drive seems utterly undiminished, and he’s anxious to finish up the production of Menachem’s Seed: "It’s my first play at 75," Djerassi explains. "I don’t want to drag it out or it will be the only play I ever write."

Just two days after that first reading of the play, Djerassi returns to the dank rehearsal hall having rewritten the first act, shuffled scenes and chopped 15 minutes of dialogue. "I heard them loud and clear," he tells the assembled troupe. " ‘Too much science,’ ‘a professor trying to write a play,’ ‘too didactic.’ I came as a scientist who wants to use the theater, but I’ve been hit on the head enough."

There’s much ado about Melanie, the baby-seeking biologist who sneaks her lover’s used condom into a thermos full of liquid nitrogen. During rehearsals, her character’s growth is stressed: "She’s got to change and it has to cost her," the director says.

By the April reading, the play has been significantly sharpened. (A one-act version, renamed An Immaculate Misconception, had a successful three-week run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August and a San Francisco performance in October.) The scene where a hand-guided sperm enters an egg, projected on a video screen at center stage, remains a gripping highlight. The condom-to-thermos dash draws laughter. But now Adam, the baby born of new technology and ethical quandaries, makes a dramatic appearance, showing how Melanie is changed by her act of calculating creation.

The theater resonates not just with Melanie’s story, but with the playwright’s: an ingenious scientist who, time after time, synthesizes a new self.

David Jacobson is a freelance writer in San Francisco who covers technology and culture.

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