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Syntex Made It Possible, Sic Manebimus in Pace, Or Sexy Man Invents Pill: An Evening With Carl Djerassi

Djerassi (left) and Jacobs chat after the screening. Drahl/C&EN

The toughest part of blogging about a chemist like Carl Djerassi has been figuring out where among C&EN’s blogs the post fits. He’s ended up in The Haystack this time, my reasoning being “this is the inventor of the Pill, for Pete’s sake”, but I could just as easily imagine David musing about the pill’s natural product connections (Mexican yams!) at Terra Sigillata, or myself posting in Newscripts about Djerassi’s announcement on a work-in-progress: a new play called “Insufficiency” about a chemist who is denied tenure. (That’s all I know so far!)

It was pouring in DC last night as I sloshed four blocks north of ACS’s headquarters to the Carnegie Insitution for Science, to meet Djerassi and take in a screening of “Carl Djerassi- My Life”, an homage that follows Djerassi to Vienna, Stanford, and SoHo theaters. After the film, Djerassi and ACS Executive Director Madeleine Jacobs had an “Inside the Actors’ Studio”-style chat. Matt of Sciencegeist couldn’t make it for the evening, and I promised him via Twitter that I’d post if Djerassi said anything interesting. That’s when Chemjobber jumped in:

Chemjobber: @carmendrahl @sciencegeist If?

Touché, CJ. Clearly, as Matt then noted, I’d have to post WHEN Djerassi said interesting stuff, not if. So behold: choice Djerassi quotes from the evening.

From the film:

“I’m ambitious. This ambition, it’s a drive, but it’s also poisonous.”

On the name for his expansive ranch, originally named SMIP for Syntex made it possible, and dubbed Sic Manebimus in Pace (Thus we’ll remain in peace) after a conversation with Stanford physicist and Nobelist Felix Bloch: Djerassi says friends and visiting artists have played around with other possibilities- “See me in private, sexy man invents Pill”.

On receiving the National Medal of Science from Richard Nixon:
“I swore to myself I wouldn’t laugh when he handed it to me.” Djerassi hadn’t voted for Nixon and opposed the Vietnam War. But Nixon said something funny about football when shaking his hand, which made him laugh. “And that’s the photo the White House took.” Because Djerassi ended up on an ‘enemies list’ for his Vietnam opposition, his Stanford students eventually captioned the photo in the lab: ‘Support your local enemy’.

On marrying his second wife when she became pregnant: “That’s actually funny for someone who worked so intently on the Pill.”

On the Pill’s social impact: “People think technology causes change.” But sometimes, the social landscape changes in such a way that “it creates the right conditions to introduce new technology”.

From the discussion afterward:

On public outreach through literature and plays: “I’d like to touch the people that didn’t come here” (to a science-themed evening).

On a segment in the film in which Cornell professor Jerrold Meinwald contrasts Djerassi’s ambitiousness with that of Columbia professor Gilbert Stork, who Meinwald says is far less so: “This is frankly bullshit. Gilbert is as ambitious as I am.”

On how he’d like to be remembered: “That he didn’t do much harm”.

More reading: a Jeff-Seeman edited autobiography of Djerassi called “Steroids Made It Possible“- h/t Ash at Curious Wavefunction

5 Comments

  • Mar 11th 201112:03
    by Curious Wavefunction

    Must have been fun, Djerassi is definitely an exceptional character! Interestingly, in his memoirs he quotes Nixon saying something funny not about football but about chemistry, something along the lines of “I always sucked at chemistry in school”. This made him laugh.

    One very memorable photo from his memoirs which I will always remember is of R B Woodward on the beach, dressed in a *suit*, standing on the backs of Djerassi and Vladimir Prelog who are lying prone on the sand. The two are dressed more appropriately in beach shorts.

  • Mar 11th 201114:03
    by Carmen Drahl

    Hmm.. might’ve been both re:Nixon.

    And I too have seen that photo- it ended up in the C&EN Picks video feature we did for the Boston meeting last fall- for the Woodward Memorial Session. I don’t have a link to the video for copyright reasons, but you’re right, it’s an awesome shot.

  • Mar 11th 201114:03
    by Chemjobber

    But sometimes, the social landscape changes in such a way that “it creates the right conditions to introduce new technology”.

    Without further elaboration from Djerassi, I think this is silly. Maybe I’m wrong (I don’t know the demographic histories of various developing nations). But I submit that if you introduced the Pill into *any* society that allowed women some level of commerce (i.e. access to the Pill), you’d watch the birth rate start to drop.

    The Meinwald/Stork/Djerassi bit is AWESOME, Carmen. That’s worth the price of admission right there (and I’d love to know the backstory behind that comment.)

  • Mar 11th 201116:03
    by Curious Wavefunction

    Hmm…I wonder if by “social landscape changes” Djerassi was referring in this case to the women’s and liberal movements in the 60s. Those movements did create a favorable social environment for introducing something like the pill.

  • Mar 11th 201116:03
    by Carmen Drahl

    Gah.. just submitted another story so I’m just getting back here… @Curious Wavefunction I think you are right. Djerassi alluded to the 60s as being a time of multiple movements in the US, and not just one for Womens’ lib.

    @CJ I think that what you say about access to the Pill makes sense. But then I think about women who, for cultural reasons, can’t use female condoms to prevent disease or to control pregnancy.

    And re: Meinwald/Stork/Djerassi, that comment came out of a general discussion about chemists’ ambition. Djerassi questioned the scientific desire to be “first”, and, as I recall, then brought that bit out completely unprompted. Funny thing was that the audience wasn’t very chemist-heavy, so that didn’t garner nearly as many chuckles as, say, the comment about getting his 2nd wife pregnant.

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