The many faces of Carl Djerassi

Feb. 26, 2010, 12:50 a.m.
The many faces of Carl Djerassi
(Photo courtesy of Carl Djerassi)

In 1983, Carl Djerassi was undoubtedly an accomplished man. A world-renowned chemist whose development of a synthetic hormone led to the first oral contraceptive pill, he had already built, at 59, an extremely successful scientific career.

And then he got dumped.

“When the woman I loved very much left me, I was left with simple, typical, macho revenge,” he said, chuckling to himself. In the next year, he veered away from chemistry and channeled his vengeful energy first into poetry, then into a 331-page manuscript for his first novel.

Since then, Djerassi has published seven works of fiction and four plays–almost all dealing with the drama of science–and has no intention of slowing down.

Literary Inclinations

At 86, Djerassi’s wavy white hair and robust beard frame a face that is deceivingly young. His walk is the only thing that gives him away–a slow, deliberate gait hindered by a stiff leg and a limp that he nevertheless manages to render dignified.

In his spacious office in the basement of Stauffer chemistry building, Djerassi maneuvered his way into a chair and carefully lifted his foot onto a collapsible footrest. He was well aware of the focus of most of his press coverage.

“As you can well imagine, most people much of the time keep talking about the pill,” he said in a hint of an accent–the only indication of German as his mother tongue. “But firstly, this was 1951, before I came to Stanford, so it has nothing to do with Stanford. And secondly, it was over half a century ago.”

Instead, he spoke fondly of his third wife, Diane Middlebrook–a professor emerita of english at Stanford who passed away in 2007–the woman who shattered his ego almost three decades ago. They reunited and married after the separation–on the condition that he never publish the revenge-driven novel that she inspired.

“What really convinced me was when she said, ‘You know, it’s not really very good,’ because she was, you know, a superb writer and a distinguished critic,” he said. But she was impressed by his dedication that produced an entire novel in a year–a disciplined approach he credits to his rigorous background in scientific writing.

As the only child of two physicians, he pursued a medical education without question, eventually discovering an affinity and talent for chemistry. But his artistic inclinations were always present if not visible–he even harbored early ambitions to become a professional cello player.

“Cello has always been my favorite musical instrument, but I realized that I was completely passable,” he mused. “I’m a very ambitious person, though–if I do something, I want to do it well and be recognized, which is stupid, perhaps.” He paused. “But it’s a fact. So I said, forget about it.”


His office, rather than displaying his chemistry accolades, is covered wall-to-wall with shelves of his novels and posters from various runs of his plays. His first dramatic work, An Immaculate Misconception, discusses the pioneering of an artificial fertilization process, but it deals just as closely with the idiosyncratic and often misunderstood culture of scientific academia.

This is what Djerassi considers unique about his works: their scientific subjects and the inherent educational quality that accompanies them.

“I realized that if I wanted my ideas to reach a wider audience, doing it through scientific articles would get me nowhere,” he said. “I wanted to talk to the 99 percent of people who are not just anti-scientific; they’re ascientific–or afraid of it.”

This gave birth to “science-in-fiction”–which, he emphasizes, is very different from “science fiction”–a genre that uses fictional forms to analyze the ethical, moral and personal dilemmas that often arise in the “tribal culture” of science, as he characterizes it.

After his success with novels, he moved to “science-in-fiction” drama around 2000 after being inspired by a similar scientific play. He prefers drama because of the ever-evolving nature of a play: even after it has been published as a script, everyone interprets it differently, giving it new life.

But the overlap between science and literature remains scant, and Djerassi is painfully aware of this.

“I’m really sitting between two schools,” he said. “To the literary establishment, I’m still the outsider chemist who’s sticking his nose in a field that’s not his business. And to the chemists, I’m wasting my time.”

“Science-in-Theatre”: A New Genre?

Djerassi’s class meets once a week, for three hours, on Monday evenings. But instead of biking to class, students gather at the Tresidder bollards at 5 p.m. to carpool into the heart of San Francisco, where an opulent apartment building perches at the top of a hill.

“This is the adventure part,” said Acata Felton ’12 of the weekly drive up the peninsula.

One by one, the cars arrive at Djerassi’s apartment building. The elevator on his floor opens into a deep royal blue hallway, with constellations and German poetry covering the wall in gold paint. On a wall, the words “Sic manebimus in pace” (“thus we will remain in peace”) lie next to the molecular diagram for the birth control pill hormone.

Inside, a vast collection of art decorates the walls: a dozen originals of Paul Klee–Djerassi’s favorite artist, whose works he has collected for decades–sculptures of heads, enormous wall sculptures and a colorful chair. At night, the Bay Bridge shimmers through the window–and on the opposite side of the apartment, the Golden Gate.

Although technically emeritus since 2002, Djerassi still teaches one sophomore seminar a year, which gives credit in either drama or chemistry. They discuss “science-in-theatre,” using both his own plays as well as those of other playwrights. Over dinner, the students debate the historical background of the plays, question the ethical problems raised and rewrite and act the endings of the plays they read.

Although normally quite chatty, Djerassi munches placidly on his naan while the students present their take on this week’s set of plays. The topic tonight is Newton.

Djerassi pauses to insert his opinion.

“Newton was one of the biggest shits of his time,” he states matter-of-factly. The class laughs. “But he was also, no doubt, one of the greatest scientists.”

At the end of the evening–which usually extends past the set time–the students face a long ride home. But it’s worth it.

“He’s great–like a synthesis of a cute old man, accomplished chemist, and playwright,” said Stephanie Muscat ’13.

A Man of Small Pleasures

Carl Djerassi’s accomplishments range much further than simply chemistry and playwriting. He was on Nixon’s “enemies list,” and his face graces a stamp in his native Austria. His collection of Paul Klee artwork is often displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Djerassi has led a class of graduate students to publish the first piece of fiction in the scientific journal Nature–or as he likes to put it, “the first time in 160 years that Nature had published an intentional mistake.”

But at his heart, he remains a man of small pleasures.

He recalls with admiration his third wife’s critical take on his fiction, her ability to separate their relationship from her analysis.

“She was a fierce critic–always able to say, ‘I adore you, but this is bullshit,’” he said.

After he showed her Marx, Deceased–his first and only foray into non-scientific fiction–she was silent until she finished. Finally, he recalls, she turned to him and said simply, “Chemist, this is good.”

“And that was the highest praise I’ve ever had of any book of mine that I’ve ever written,” he said with a small smile.

Ellen Huet is currently a senior staff writer at The Daily; she joined the staff in fall 2008 and served one volume as managing news editor in fall and early winter of 2010-2011. Reach her at ehuet at stanford dot edu. Fan mail and sternly worded complaints are equally welcome.

Login or create an account

Apply to The Daily’s High School Winter Program

Applications Due Soon