April 23, 2020
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He is that, but he's much more. He harbors a complex creative urge that continually seeks new ways to express his preoccupations, passions, and brilliance. This highly decorated organic chemist is best known for his part in the invention of the birth control pill, yet his scientific contributions range from the development of the first antihistamine treatment for allergies to achievements in marine chemistry and biodegradable pest control. He combined a forty-year career as a professor of chemistry at Stanford University with the presidency of the pharmaceutical company Syntex. A patron of the arts, he built up a remarkable collection that included Picassos, Giacomettis, and Klees. Most of the collection he sold to support the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, an artist colony created in memory of his daughter on the family's 1,200-acre ranch, which to date has sponsored more than two thousand working artists. He is a multilingual, cosmopolitan citizen of two continents, with residences in San Francisco, London, and Vienna. Over the past twenty years, he has transformed himself into a man of letters, producing novels, short stories, poems, and plays that have received productions from New York to London to Tokyo.
“Science and art are the two worlds in which, in a way, I've always lived,” says Djerassi '43 H'58.
A refugee from Nazi Austria, Djerassi arrived in the United States as a teenager in 1939. He wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt seeking a full scholarship to attend college, and after beginning his studies at another Midwestern college, transferred to Kenyon as a junior. He lived in Douglas House along with students of John Crowe Ransom and managed to graduate in just a year and a summer, before his nineteenth birthday. Though he spent a relatively short time at Kenyon, “the instruction was superb” and “I fell in love with that small men's college in Gambier, Ohio,” he writes in an autobiography, The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse. “It was at Kenyon that I became a chemist.”
The Bulletin had a chance to talk with Djerassi recently.
The media devoted countless pages recently to celebrate fifty years of the Pill. What are your thoughts on the Pill at fifty-plus? We had no idea, when we synthesized progestin, that it would lead to an oral contraceptive. No idea at all. The Pill for me is old hat, but the social consequences are not. The social impact remains very important. It has empowered millions of women who are able to control the timing of reproduction. Highly educated women are able to pursue careers. In the western world, it has changed society, no doubt about it. But I'm surprised we're celebrating fifty years of the Pill. It was a sensational discovery at the time, but I was hoping that it would lead to better, more convenient methods of contraception. And it hasn't. Penicillin has been modified and improved upon, but this substance we made in 1951 is still in use.
You're widely referred to as the “Father of the Pill,” but you reject the term. Why?
I object to the term not only because it's historically inaccurate—if anyone is the father of the Pill it's Gregory Pincus—but because I consider it meaningless. It's a phallocentric tendency to talk about the father of the Pill, the father of the country. My work and plays are involved with birth, conception. Anything that gets born needs more than one person. Well, who's the mother in this? The nourishing maternal environment is much more important than a puny sperm. I'd rather be called the mother of the Pill. The chemist is invariably the mother of a medicinal drug invention, a biologist the father, and a clinician the midwife. In fact, when my autobiography came out in German, the publisher wanted to call the book “The Father of the Pill.” I said, tongue in cheek but not completely, “call it ‘the Mother of the Pill.'” And they did. The German title is Mother of the Pill. It's partly funny, but I like it. I'm a male feminist, thanks to my third and last wife, Diane Middlebrook, a feminist and literary scholar. But I was already disposed towards it because I was raised essentially as the son of a single (divorced) mother who ran a medical office in our apartment. I grew up knowing that women worked and could play many roles.
For more than twenty years, you've been writing fiction, plays, and poems. Do you see any correlation between chemical research and literary creation?
People ask me what they have in common. The answer is nothing. They are very different creative endeavors. I have written over a thousand scientific papers and half a dozen monographs, and it is not like writing literature. Stylistically they are completely different. Scientists are not permitted to use dialogue, even though dialogic forms were used in philosophic and other writing in the past. (Try telling a literary writer or playwright they can't use dialogue.) Scientists have to use the royal “we” that kings or politicians use—it's a false pretense to modesty. (We scientists are very ambitious and pretend to be completely surprised when we get a Nobel or something. It's bull***t.) Third, a paper that has good science but crummy style can get published—not in the journal you want, but it will get published somewhere and somebody will find it and read it. But in literature, the style is essential to getting published. Finally, literary writers may use a nom de plume but science writers never do. Scientific writing depends on the science that came before. It is almost an accident who makes a scientific discovery, a matter of luck as to who gets there first, and the one who gets there first gets the credit. But if it wasn't that scientist, it would have been another. If Mendel hadn't discovered genetics, genetics would still have been discovered by someone else. If Crick and Watson didn't discover DNA, within three months it would have been discovered by someone else. But only Eric Blair, writing as George Orwell, could have written 1984. A literary work is not bound to get written and could not be written by someone else.
You've coined the term “productive insecurity.” What is it?
“Productive insecurity” I coined in my novel Marx, Deceased and my play Ego, which are about writers preoccupied with their reviews. It's typical of all creative people, particularly writers, composers, actors. They're dependent on the opinion of others to get their work published or performed. And they're dependent on critics for their reputation. Literary critics can be nasty and most have never published a novel, just as art critics have rarely painted a painting. If you're dependent on other people for your success, you worry about it. My character Marx was a compilation of Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, and Gore Vidal, all of whom had stormy relations with critics. Joyce was famous for wondering about the reviews he would get. In Ego, my character stages his own death so he can read his obituaries while he's still alive. This need for approval from others both drives them to produce and eats them alive. It's a poison and also a nourishment. Writers are the most infected by that particular disease, less so scientists. A scientific paper can be a sleeper for many years. The scientist J. Willard Gibbs published in an obscure journal no one reads, but eventually a woman discovered it and now he's considered a giant. Scientists will publish anywhere and trust that eventually it will get discovered. That's rare
You have amassed an extensive collection of Paul Klee's works. Even when you sold off the rest of your art in the 1980s, you held onto the Klees and have written a book about his art. Why Klee?
Klee was not Jewish but as early as 1919 the Nazis called him a “non-Jew Jew,” called his art degenerate, and threw it out of museums. But that's not why I collect him. I have an emotional attachment to Klee. He's the most intellectual of artists, the most verbal, and what I call a “polygamist”—that is, he worked in different genres and in different styles, but all at the same time. Picasso went through styles sequentially, “periods.” You can look at the style of a Picasso and assign a date. You can't do that with Klee. I'm drawn to artists who work in more than one genre. And I too have lived, professionally, as a bigamist—I was an academic chemist and a president of a pharmaceutical company, all at the same time.
You were, metaphorically speaking, a “bigamist” at Stanford? I had my cake and ate it too. For many years I was a half-time professor and half-time president of Syntex, which had relocated from Mexico to the Stanford Industrial Park. I built a firewall between my academic and industrial work. I worked at 110 percent efficiency. So I never had to make the ultimate decision. I was a better academic because I had one foot in the real world and a better industrialist because I knew where the cutting-edge research was. I never exploited my students. I kept it very separate. I was a true professional bigamist, having two “wives” at the same time and sleeping with both of them in the same day, and I loved them both: professing and business.
For years you have wrestled with the question of what it means to be Jewish if you're not religious. Have you arrived at an answer?
This is a very difficult question. I was brought up secular, totally irreligious, but being a Jew and declaring that is very important to me. The majority of Jewish refugees my age, the ones in academia, never address it, never admit it. I wasn't like that. I didn't flaunt it when I came to the States, but if asked ‘Are you Jewish?' I admitted it and changed the subject. Later on I was the first Jewish chemistry professor at Stanford. When I broke through that barrier through achievement, I became secure enough to also flaunt my Jewishness among my peers. But I didn't reflect on what my being Jewish meant until my sixties. Had I not been a Jew, I would never have left Vienna and wouldn't have been a chemist. I had no chemistry in Vienna, never had a chemistry set. I probably would have become a GP. It was because I was a Jew and thrown out of Austria that I came to the States, and in the States I became a chemist.
Although you escaped persecution in Vienna as a teenager in 1939, unusually in 2004 you accepted Austrian citizenship and now live in Vienna for part of the year. How does it feel to return?
The German word “heimat” means much more than the English word “home.” Even though I accepted Austrian citizenship and have an apartment in Vienna, I didn't come home, I have no heimat here in the full German sense of the word. I can never have that feeling back. If you're thrown out of a country, you never forget. It's a mixed feeling. I have some form of reconciliation with my Austrian childhood, but I want it to be perfectly plain that the person who is willing to meet them part way is a Jew, and not anything else. When I give a lecture, I get introduced in very complimentary terms and they say ‘you left Austria in 1939 and we're happy you're back.' I always interrupt and say, ‘I didn't leave in '39, I was kicked out.' I think I'm educating people.