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Carl Djerassi

Birthplace: Vienna, Austria
Death: January 30, 2015 (91)
San Francisco, San Francisco County, California, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Samuel J Djerassi and Alice Friedmann
Husband of Norma Lundholm Djerassi
Father of Private User and Pami Djerassi

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Carl Djerassi

Carl Djerassi (October 29, 1923 – January 30, 2015) was an Austrian-American chemist, novelist, and playwright best known for his contribution to the development of the first oral contraceptive pill (OCP). Djerassi is emeritus professor of chemistry at Stanford University.

He participated in the invention in 1951, together with Mexican Luis E. Miramontes and 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 began working with progesterone—"not in our wildest dreams… did we imagine (it)".

He 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.

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


Djerassi hailed from a Jewish family, as the son of Alice Friedmann, an Ashkenazi Viennese Jew with roots in Galicia, and Samuel Djerassi, a Bulgarian Sephardic Jew. 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. Djerassi's father 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. A few years later, Djerassi arrived with his mother in the United States, nearly penniless—they had only $20 between them, which was swindled from them by a cab driver. Djerassi's mother worked in a group practice in upstate New York. In 1949, his father also 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, then got his PhD at the University of Wisconsin. He worked for CIBA in New Jersey, developing Pyribenzamine (tripelenamine), his first patent and the first commercial antihistamine.

In 1949, Djerassi was recruited to be the associate director of research at Syntex in Mexico City by its current technical director George Rosenkranz, working there from 1950-1951. At Syntex, he worked on a new synthesis of cortisone based on diosgenin, a steroid sapogenin derived from a Mexican wild yam. His team later synthesized norethindrone, a progestin-analogue that was effective when taken by mouth. This became part of the first successful oral contraceptive, the combined oral contraceptive pill (COCP). 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, MI.

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 made Djerassi a rich man. He bought a large tract of land in Woodside, California, started a cattle ranch, and also built up 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 lingers in Dallas, Texas, making products to control fleas and other pests.

On July 5, 1978, Djerassi's daughter Pamela, an artist, killed herself. Djerassi considered how he could help living artists, rather than collecting dead ones. He donated his Klee collection to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, effective on his death. He visited existing artist's colonies, such as Yaddo and McDowell, and decided to create his own. He closed down his cattle ranch, converted the barn and the houses to residential and work space for a number of artists of many kinds, brought in a prize-winning chef, and moved to an office building he had renovated in San Francisco, converting one floor into a posh apartment, where he displayed part of his art collection and hosted a literary salon. He hung up his lab coat and became an emeritus professor.

In 1992 he was awarded the Priestley Medal. Austria has issued a postage stamp with Djerassi's picture on it. The Austrian government also sent him a new Austrian passport. He was awarded the Austrian Cross of Honor for Art and Science, First Class, in 1999.

Social impact of scientific work

Djerassi perceived the pill as having a huge impact on the social processes of women and men, which to a significant extent is influenced through the sociobiology of sexual reproduction. He anticipated a far greater social impact on men than on women, in what he called as the feminization of men, implying the "social-feminization"[cite this quote] of laws and social values in favor of women in society as a whole.

Awards and honors

In 1973, Djerassi was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Nixon for his work on the Pill which was ironic to a degree, as he reported in his memoir, 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 he was awarded the Perkin Medal.

In 1978, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. 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 has issued a postage stamp with Djerassi's picture on it. 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 and is chairman of the Pharmanex Scientific Advisory Board.

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

In 2009 awarded the Alecrin Prize in Vigo (Spain).



Optical Rotatory Dispersion, McGraw-Hill & Company, 1960.

The Politics of Contraception, W H Freeman & Company, 1981, ISBN 0-7167-1342-X

Steroids Made it Possible (Profiles, Pathways, and Dreams), American Chemical Society, 1990, ISBN 0-8412-1773-4 (autobiography)

The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse, Basic Books, 1992, ISBN 0-465-05758-6 (autobiography) From the Lab into The World: A Pill for People, Pets, and Bugs, American Chemical Society, 1994, ISBN 0-8412-2808-6

Paul Klee: Masterpieces of the Djerassi Collection, (coeditor), Prestel Publishing, 2002, ISBN 3-7913-2779-8

Dalla pillola alla penna, Di Renzo Editore, 2004, ISBN 8883230868

This Man's Pill: Reflections on the 50th Birthday of the Pill , Oxford University Press, USA, 2004, ISBN 0-19-860695-8 (autobiography)


Futurist and Other Stories, Macdonald, 1989, ISBN 0-356-17500-6

The Clock Runs Backwards, Story Line Press, 1991, ISBN 0-934257-75-2

Marx, Deceased, University of Georgia Press, 1996, ISBN 0-8203-1835-3


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

Cantor's Dilemma, Penguin, 1989, ISBN 0-14-014359-9

The Bourbaki Gambit, Penguin, 1994, ISBN 0-14-025485-4

Menachem's Seed, Penguin, 1996, ISBN 0-14-027794-3 NO, Penguin, 1998, ISBN 0-14-029654-9


An Immaculate Misconception: Sex in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Imperial College Press, 2000, ISBN 1-86094-248-2 (adapted from the novel Menachem's Seed)

L.A. Theatre Works, Audio Theatre Collection CD, 2004, ISBN 1-58081-286-4

Oxygen, Wiley-VCH, (with Roald Hoffmann, coauthor), 2001, ISBN 3-527-30413-4

Newton's Darkness: Two Dramatic Views, (with David Pinner, coauthor), Imperial College Press, 2004, ISBN 1-86094-390-X

Four Jews on Parnassus

Carl Djerassi, emeritus professor of chemistry at Stanford University, is one of the few American scientists to have been awarded both the National Medal of Science (for the first synthesis of a steroid oral contraceptive--”the Pill”) and the National Medal of Technology (for promoting new approaches to insect control). A member of the US National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society (London) as well as many other foreign academies, Djerassi has received 24 honorary doctorates together with numerous other honors, such as the first Wolf Prize in Chemistry, the first Award for the Industrial Application of Science from the National Academy of Sciences, the Erasmus Medal of the Academia Europeae, the Perkin Medal of the Society for Chemical Industry, the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Chemists, and the American Chemical Society’s highest award, the Priestley Medal. An Austrian postage stamp with his image was issued in 2005.

For the past 22 years, he has turned to fiction writing, mostly in the genre of “science-in-fiction,” whereby he illustrates, in the guise of realistic fiction, the human side of scientists and the personal conflicts faced by scientists in their quest for scientific knowledge, personal recognition, and financial rewards. In addition to 5 novels (“Cantor’s Dilemma;” “The Bourbaki Gambit;” “Marx, deceased;” “Menachem’s Seed;” “NO”), poetry (“The Clock runs backwards”), autobiography (“The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas’ Horse”) and memoir (“This Man’s Pill”), he embarked in 1997 on a trilogy of “science-in-theatre” plays. “AN IMMACULATE MISCONCEPTION”—first performed at the 1998 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and subsequently (1999 - 2005) in London, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Vienna, Munich, Cologne, Sundsvall, Stockholm, Sofia, Geneva, Seoul, Tokyo, Lisbon, and Singapore—has been translated into 12 languages and broadcast by BBC Radio on its World Service in 2000 as “Play of the Week,” in 2001 by the West German and Swedish Radio, in 2004 by NPR (USA) and in 2006 by Radio Prague. “OXYGEN” (co-authored with Roald Hoffmann) premiered in April 2001 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, in September 2001 at the Mainfranken Theater in Würzburg and in November 2001 at the Riverside Studios in London and was broadcast by both BBC World Service and the West German Radio in December 2001. It has since been translated into 16 languages. “CALCULUS,” translated into 5 languages and published in book form in English, German and Italian, premiered in 2003 in San Francisco followed by a London production in 2004 as well as performances in Vienna, Munich, Berlin, Dresden, Dublin, Cambridge, and Munich. A chamber opera version (music by Werner Schulze) premiered in May 2005 in the Zurich Opera (Studiobühne).

Among his “non-scientific” plays, “EGO,” premiered at the 2003 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and under the title “THREE ON A COUCH” in London (2004) and in 2008 in New York. A German translation of “EGO” was broadcast by the WDR in 2004, followed by its Austrian theatrical premiere in 2005 and a major German tour (Landgraf) in early 2006 and again early 2007. The London premiere of his fifth play (“PHALLACY”) with a science vs. art theme occurred in 2005 with a German radio version broadcast in early 2006 by the WDR; its New York premiere was held in May 2007. His sixth play, “TABOOS” opened in London in 2006 and had its German language premiere in July 2006 in Graz and its New York premiere in September 2008. Semi-staged readings of his most recent docudrama, “FOUR JEWS ON PARNASSUS—a Conversation” (dealing with Benjamin, Adorno, Scholem, and Schönberg) were held in 2006 in Berlin at the Walter Benjamin Festival and subsequently in Madison, WI, Stockholm, London, Cambridge, Vienna, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Bayreuth, Berlin, London, and San Francisco. His newest play, FOREPLAY (, dealing with Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor and Gretel Adorno, was published in book form in English, German, and Spanish in March 2011.

He is also the founder of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program near Woodside, California, which provides residencies and studio space for artists in the visual arts, literature, choreography and performing arts, and music. Over 2000 artists have passed through that program since its inception in 1982.

Djerassi lives in San Francisco, Vienna, and London.

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Carl Djerassi's Timeline

October 29, 1923
Vienna, Austria
January 30, 2015
Age 91
San Francisco, San Francisco County, California, United States