Carl Djerassi’s Lives in Science

A new autobiography mixes fact and fiction in an effort to capture a more complete picture of the scientist and author.

By Carsten Reinhardt | June 2, 2016
Carl Djerassi

Carl Djerassi.

Science History Institute/Douglas A. Lockard

Carl Djerassi. In Retrospect: From the Pill to the Pen. Imperial College Press, 2014. 388 pp. $69 cloth, $29 paper.

Sometimes life ends with tragedy, as with the life of Fritz Haber. Sometimes it starts with one. Sometimes life changes in its middle. Historian Eric Hobsbawm described the 20th century as an age of extremes. Yet despite all the terror and displacement it was also a time of creativity and innovation. Some historians and social scientists even argue that the emigration of so many (would-be) scientists in the 1930s and 1940s to the United States from Europe opened up personal and scientific opportunities. The life of Carl Djerassi is a case in point. Or should I say the lives of Carl Djerassi?

In late 1939, at the age of 16, Carl Djerassi is forced to leave his native Vienna. He immigrates to the United States, studies at Kenyon College, and finishes a PhD in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin in 1945. Up to this point Djerassi’s story is similar to that of many of his generation. Djerassi takes a position in industry, feeling that the underlying anti-Semitism of the time would hinder his real desire for an academic career, also not unusual. In 1949 Djerassi’s path starts to diverge from the beaten one. He moves to Mexico City and joins the then small company Syntex, which manufactures therapeutic steroids. Here, on the periphery of U.S. science, Djerassi and his team excel. In the race to synthesize cortisone he ties with researchers at Harvard University and Merck. He also lays the groundwork for the contraceptive pill, arguably his most important contribution to science and technology and one that will have a tremendous impact on society.

Djerassi with Sanford students 2.jpg

Carl Djerassi at Stanford University in 1963.

Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service

What does a man in his late twenties and with such credentials do? He moves to Wayne State University in Detroit to start his longed-for academic career. Although the move to Wayne State is another pathway to the periphery, this time it leads finally to the middle of what becomes mainstream: Silicon Valley. In 1960 he joins the faculty of Stanford University’s promising (but not yet famous) chemistry department. As Syntex’s research director, he moves the company’s research center to Palo Alto. He participates in a decade-long development of physical methods in organic (bio-)chemistry, making significant changes to the scientific practices of the day. He contributes to a new style of academic-industrial partnership by cofounding several companies and serving as their research director and CEO. At the same time, he runs a research group at Stanford with himself as a self-described “benevolent dictator,” while producing more than 1,000 papers and many books.

End of story? Life hits again. He is diagnosed with cancer. His daughter commits suicide. The love of his life leaves. He turns to life itself, to writing about it: life and science, both autobiographically and fictionally, in novels and plays. He blurs the boundaries between science and fiction, creating his own literary genre, science in fiction.

Writing about real science and real lives in science in fictional terms is something not many scientists do. In his fiction Djerassi writes about scientific jealousy, extreme passions, intense competition, misconduct, and fraud. He writes about the dark sides of science. He might not have done so in a traditional autobiography. In his novels and plays Djerassi opens up the intricate inner workings of science to his audiences. Of course, as a reader, one has to decipher the fiction to interpret it, to find out what is real and what isn’t. And this leads me to Carl Djerassi’s fourth autobiography. With In Retrospect, the chemist-author presents us with, according to him, a more representative account of his inner life than that given by his previous autobiographies. Djerassi says this is because he used science in fiction to practice psychoanalysis on himself. The fictional actors in his plays and novels offer perspectives on the “true” Carl Djerassi and on his “real” thoughts, motives, and obsessions. This latest work is a Rosetta stone to the literary oeuvre of Djerassi—how to interpret his fictional body of literature.

In the book, Djerassi describes the various stages of his metamorphosis from scientist to science-in-fiction writer. He incorporates his own fictional text, blurring completely the boundaries between biographical fact and fiction. In Djerassi’s opinion his fiction contains more truth than his factual writing would allow.

In Retrospect has an apt beginning: it starts with the end. He opens the narrative with a description of his death in the year 2023, an act of suicide. He continues with a detailed chapter on the history of the invention and diffusion of the stuff and the ideas that led to the contraceptive pill. His homes in California, London, and Vienna are the foci of the following chapter. His interpretation of Jewish identity and the changes in a life of 90 years are the theme of the fourth chapter. The next chapter, “Professor of Professional Deformation,” includes much of his biographical path as a chemist. The chapters that close the book cover his life as a writer, his passion for collecting art, and particular episodes in Djerassi’s life—his stint as a scientist-ambassador in Africa, his time as coproducer of a movie, and the suicide of his daughter. The underlying themes of the autobiography are hurt, justice, identity, vanity, and a longing to belong.

Djerassi’s literary work has been well received in German-speaking countries in the past, which may be why the German edition of this book appeared first. In the years after 2000 Djerassi reached a state that he describes as reconciliation. The publication of his autobiography in the language of the country that forced him to leave is a sign of this reconciliation, as is his choosing of Vienna as one of his homes. A lifelong migration has come full circle. Djerassi deals with these questions in a special chapter titled “Heimat(losigkeit),” a German notion difficult to translate into English but which roughly means “lacking the feeling of home.”

As a genre most autobiographies attempt to present a unified and homogeneous life. In contrast Djerassi fragments his life, almost like a Cubist painting. By doing so he avoids the illusion of a complete and sense-making story of his life. In not obeying the usual constraints of the genre, Djerassi continues to be the outsider he always felt himself to be. This is not the work of a scientist driven by his ego (though his ego is a character that plays a large role in most of his novels). In Retrospect is a guide to Djerassi’s fiction and to his lives in science and beyond.

This review is based on the German edition, Der Schatten-sammler die allerletzte Autobiografie, translated into German by Ursula-Maria Mössner and published in 2013 by Haymon.