Carl Djerassi ’42: Science & Fiction

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January 21, 2016 by American College of Sofia

Interview by Lisa Kostova Ogata ’97

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Prof. Djerassi and members of his family during their visit at ACS in May 2013

It’s 4 o’clock on a sunny San Francisco Saturday. There’s nowhere a cloud to be seen. I step into the beautiful marble foyer of one of the oldest San Francisco high rises, perched on top of a hill and overlooking the whole bay. The elevator takes me to the residence of Prof. Carl Djerassi and I step into a beautifully painted hallway submerged in rich and deep blue hues with the Scorpio constellation and the night sky above me. The elevator door closes to reveal in golden letters the words “Es tickt und tickt die Zeit und die Feder ist schon eingetaucht.”[1] I look around. I am at a loss as to which of the two doors to go through – one of them is open, so I gingerly step inside. “Hello? Prof. Djerassi”? As I scan the space, my mind is trying to absorb all the colors and the numerous pieces of modern and pre-Colombian art decorating the floors and the walls. Out of nowhere emerges the thin but stately frame of an older gentleman. He shakes my hand energetically and I can’t help but notice that his eyes are full of life and his head is sporting a mane of thick white hair. Even though he’s supported by a cane (the result of a ski injury on Vitosha, as I am about to learn), he walks so briskly that I have to hurry up to follow him through the apartment into the living room where we will be conversing for the rest of the afternoon.

I first learned about Prof. Djerassi when I was a student at the College. I knew he was the inventor of the birth control pill, a famous scientist, and an art collector. By the time I met him in San Francisco, I learned that he was also an accomplished author and playwright, as well as an art benefactor who had converted his ranch at Woodside, California into a resident program for emerging artists. Born in Vienna in 1923 to an Austrian mother and a Bulgarian father, Prof. Djerassi grabbed the world’s attention in 1951 when his science team in Mexico City became the first to synthesize the progestin norethindrone. Unlike other hormones, that progestin remained effective when taken orally and was the active ingredient in the first oral contraceptive pill. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in the US and is the recipient of the National Medal of Science, awarded by President Nixon, the National Medal of Technology, and the Perkin Medal. Other prestigious awards and honors of his in the US and Europe include an Austrian post stamp with his image and 31 honorary doctorates – two of them from Bulgarian institutions (Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and most recently the American University in Bulgaria). Prof. Djerassi is a collector of the works of Paul Klee, among other art works, and has gifted most of his Klee collection to the San Francisco Modern Art Museum. He is the author of three autobiographies, over a dozen fiction and science-in-fiction[2] books and several plays, including Oxygen, An Immaculate Misconception: Sex in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Newton’s Darkness, and Insufficiency, which have been staged in theatres in the United States, Austria, Germany, Bulgaria, the United Kingdom and many other countries.

These days Prof. Djerassi spends his time finishing his “third and last” autobiography, playwriting, traveling to speaking engagements, and consulting on the sets of his plays in the United States and Europe. “I work harder than most 30-year olds”, he notes, revealing a glimpse of his desire to be seen as an evolving, active artist, and intellectual, and not as “a relic piece in a museum”, which is how he feels society views most 90-year-olds these days.

Clearly, this is a fascinating man with a rich history, an active mind, and an inexhaustible zest for life. And clearly, we won’t even begin to scratch the surface of such a long and full life in a single sitting. I am especially interested in his story and memories from the time he spent in Bulgaria and at the American College of Sofia. So, we dive into the interview.

Prof. Djerassi, you have had so many identities in your life, so many ways of expressing your personality– as a poet, writer, inventor, scientist, father, husband, European, and American. Which one of these identities is the strongest for you at this moment in time?

One thing is sure. It’s not my scientific identity even though I was totally immersed in the field for 50 years. Scientists have no historical sense. We teach practically nothing about the history of science, we are interested only in what’s being invented in science today and tomorrow. For scientists, what’s most exciting is what they’re doing or about to do. That is still the case with me, too. Since I left active science in 1992 (except for lectures), I focus primarily on what makes us, scientists, different. It’s an oversimplification, but there is an enormous gulf between the scientific and the humanistic cultures, as there is between scientists and mass culture. My third wife, who was an extraordinary intellectual, a professor of English at Stanford[3], lived in a completely different world at the same institution.[4] She had never been to the side of the campus where our chemistry lab was and until we met I had never been to the main library. Even though a culturally oriented person, I pursued these interests outside of the university, so I never used the main library at Stanford. When we met, we were very amused with some of our behavioral and professional characteristics.

P1_Professor Carl Djerassi at ACS in May, 2013_Photograph by Boris Urumov

Carl Djerassi at ACS in May 2013 – Photograph by Boris Urumov ’15

So, to answer your question, I am focused totally and completely on my work in literature at the moment. I tend to display an irritation when interviewers inevitably start with the invention of the pill. For Goodness’ sakes, I was 28 years old and it’s not as if I didn’t do anything between the ages of 28 and 90. I work hard, I travel more, and I lecture more than when I was young. What I want to be recognized for is what I’m doing now, not what I did decades ago. So, when people ask me what I’m doing now, I say I’m an “intellectual smuggler.” I decided to become that in 1985 when I decided to change my life and smuggle aspects of my science culture to the general public. Writing scientific books, articles, and giving scientific lectures is not the answer because the audience is specialized and usually already knows something about the subject matter. Whereas I wanted to deal with the other 99.9% of the people and I decided to hide science in fiction, and later in plays, since I became interested in using dialogue and case histories. I disguise actual facts into these works and that is what is important to me now.

This last year was a very crucial year to me, because I wrote my third and final autobiography. Who would need so many autobiographies of a person, any person; it’s ludicrous. It makes sense for me though. The first autobiography was sponsored by the American Chemical Society who was interested in describing the history of 20th century Chemistry. That autobiography was meant for chemists and is not understandable to other audiences. So, I don’t count it as an autobiography.  The second one, The Pill, Pigmy Chimps, and Degas’ Horse was written in 1991 at the instigation of my wife, because she was curious about the life of her husband – especially about my life in Europe and as a refugee. Ten years later in 2001, for the 50th anniversary of the chemical invention of the pill, I wrote This Man’s Pill, Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Pill, a memoir of how the pill changed me in a very different way than it changed women. It made me more concerned with issues that most scientists are not concerned with and caused me to want to communicate with a broader public.

And lo and behold, I wrote a third autobiography, which I finished in September of last year. I didn’t really intend to write another one but my German publisher encouraged me to do that in advance of my 90th birthday. I’ve changed enormously in the last 20 years and I’ve been extremely active in a new way, so I see myself as a very different person now. In these 20 years of writing plays I have been analyzing myself and talking about aspects of my life that I had never discussed with anyone or in any of my previous autobiographies. I hid those aspects in fiction. I’ve evolved some of my very male characteristics from 20-30 years ago and developed a keen interest in the female perspective. I’m writing largely through the eyes and characters of women. In an attempt to reflect on this period I named this book Treading on Shadows: the Very Last Autobiography of Carl Djerassi. It contains some 60-70 pictures some of which are from Bulgaria.

A few months ago I was diagnosed with a tumor of the tongue and underwent radiation and chemotherapy. I decided that instead of lying around feeling sorry for myself I would cope with it through exercise. I go to a very tough gym every morning and with the exception of training and my cancer treatment, I spend all my time writing. I just finished another science-in-fiction novel, a complicated one called The Sleeping Beauty Syndrome, which most likely will also be my last.

I’ve also become much more Euro-centric. I thought that my European roots had been completely petrified and that I was completely Americanized. It was true until I started writing, which coincided with the time my wife and I decided to split our time between San Francisco and London. London was the obvious city for an American intellectual and English professor like my wife. I would have picked another place but I enjoyed London tremendously and my social life changed completely. When my books were translated to other languages, including German, TV and radio even discovered I spoke German. This was during the George W. Bush presidency, when I was embarrassed to be recognized as an American in Europe anyway.

When my wife died, which was a very, very tough time for me, I wanted to find a new social life in a new place, ideally one I didn’t associate with her and inevitably with losing her. I decided it wouldn’t be London and I looked for a German-speaking European city where I could get my mother tongue back. I’ve forgotten virtually all my Bulgarian and the few words I remember seem antiquated; for example, I say lyubenitsa instead of dinya. I looked at Zurich, Vienna, and Berlin and for a variety of reasons chose Vienna. The Austrian government made a number of reparation gestures and granted me an Austrian passport, which was convenient. So, I now commute three-ways between San Francisco, London, and Vienna. Lately, I am spending more and more time in Vienna due to its central location and the easy access to all the European countries where I lecture.

How does Bulgaria play into the picture?  What do you associate with Bulgaria?

Bulgaria has been important to my life in many respects. I romanticize the country because unlike my memories from Vienna, I only have pleasant recollections from Bulgaria. My parents got divorced very early without telling me about it. As a boy, I always spent summer vacations in Bulgaria where I had a wonderful time. I was an only child who lived with a very possessive mother in Vienna most of the year, while in Bulgaria there were oodles of cousins, uncles, and other relatives. We would go to Chamkoria[5] or Varna together and I loved that life.

When the Nazis came to Vienna my father returned to Austria and re-married my mother, so we could get Bulgarian passports and leave immediately. They divorced again afterwards and my mom went to London to wait for the American visa while I stayed in Sofia and attended the American College of Sofia. Everything about that worked well. I made a lot of friends and I really liked my classmates. I stayed at the boarding school and came to Sofia only on weekends. The American College was also the only school where you didn’t have to wear a uniform, just a blue suit, and we also didn’t have to shave our heads.[6] I also learned English at the school, so when I came to the United States I had an enormous advantage speaking good English. I also managed to skip the last two years of high school in the US because the authorities in the US thought I had already attended a “college”.

At the American College, I also felt secure as a Bulgarian Jew, a feeling that was mostly justified. Some people give all the credit to Tsar Boris, but the fact was that Bulgaria was not an anti-Semitic country. For centuries, Jews had lived together with Christian Bulgarians there, including during the years spent under Ottoman rule.

I left Bulgaria in 1939 and didn’t come back until 1968. Almost every single time I’ve come back to Bulgaria ever since, I’ve visited the American College. ACS President Tom Cangiano had me give some talks to the students while I was there a few years ago. My grandson and my son will accompany me on my trip to Bulgaria this May and I want to show my family the American College. Also, I just found out that the College has decided to award me an honorary high school diploma while I’m there, which means a lot more to me than anyone would guess, because I never graduated from any high school.

What is your strongest memory from the American College?

1_Carl Djerassi in the College Yearbook, 1940

Carl Djerassi in the College Yearbook, 1940

It was so long ago that I only remember the good things. I felt that the instruction was first class and the teachers were wonderful. President Black and other teachers went through great trouble to accommodate me in light of my circumstances. They knew I was not there to graduate, that I was there waiting for the American immigrant visa which took about a year and a half. Generous concessions were made for me, like not requiring me to take any Bulgarian classes, aside from math classes, of course, where the Bulgarian instruction was considered superior. They really leaned over backwards and gave me letters that made an enormous difference when I came to the United States. One of my American teachers also sent me to a friend of his at New York University who helped me get into Newark Junior College without having to finish the last two years of high school.

I also had my first serious girlfriend at the American College of Sofia. If you look at the campus here (pointing to the main campus building on a yearbook photo), the dining hall was situated so that the boys ate on one end and the girls on the other one. The only people who would cross over would be the student waiters. I would exchange messages with my girlfriend, Alice Astrug, on little pieces of paper which amazingly I still have. Alice and I would also sometimes meet up secretly in the park in the evening.

Also, I remember going hiking in the woods with my classmates where there were always peasants selling among other things lukanka. To this day, every time I taste lukanka, I associate it with that memory.

The first friend that I made was Moritz Yomtov, a junior at the College, who spoke German. Initially, we conversed in German since my Bulgarian was still poor and we became good friends over time. Later, Moritz became an important journalist, a Bulgarian press attaché in Washington. I made more friends at the College and started feeling at home there. Sometimes I would go skiing on Vitosha which is where I had my ski accident that ultimately left me with a stiff leg.

I left Bulgaria in December 1939. When I came back to Bulgaria in 1968, I stayed in the Grand Hotel Sofia, across from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and Moritz’s was the only name I could remember. I asked for a phone book, I found his name and dialed the number. We had seen each other only once in Washington in the 1950’s. So, he picks up the phone and I say: “Moritz”?  There is a short pause and he immediately says: “Carli”? That was the type of friendship we had.

A few years ago, when I was visiting the College, President Tom Cangiano had prepared a surprise for me. He found six Bulgarian classmates of mine, and all these people showed up to have lunch with “Carli”. We sang the American College song and they told me how they met at an annual underground alumni meeting during Communist times. A few of the Jewish alumni, who had immigrated to Israel, would also make it back to Bulgaria for these gatherings, including my college girlfriend Alice[7].

So, you see, I’ve been extremely grateful to the American College for everything that it has given me.

San Francisco, March 16, 2013

[1] Paul Klee: (Engl.) Time ticks away and the pen is already dipped in ink

[2] A term invented by Prof. Djerassi to denote a type of fiction which introduces scientific concepts interwoven with the stories and sagas of scientists and their daily lives.

[3] Prof. Djerassi’s third wife was Prof. Diane Middlebrook who passed away in 2007.

[4] Prof. Djerassi was a professor at Stanford at the same time his wife, Prof. Diane Middlebrook, taught there.

[5] The Rila mountain resort Borovets was known as Chamkoria until the middle of the 20th century.

[6] Bulgarian schools at the time mandated shaved heads for lice control.

[7] Alice Astrug ’42 passed away in 2009 in Israel. She was married and has a son who is a successful doctor.

The interview was first published in June 2013 as part of the ACS Alumni Magazine.

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One thought on “Carl Djerassi ’42: Science & Fiction

  1. […] story I recall was from the 1940-41 school year. Carl Djerassi from Vienna, who later developed the oral contraceptive, joined the school and my class. He spoke […]

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