Carl Djerassi, the Courageous

July 5, 2017 by American College of Sofia

By Georgi Iliev

On June 9, the Science Building on campus was officially named Djerassi Hall – to honor Professor Carl Djerassi, the world-renowned scientist, writer, patron of the arts, and former student at the American College of Sofia.

p.14_Prof. Djerassi's son and grandson unveiling the sign of Djerassi Hall, 2017

Prof. Djerassi’s son Dale and grandson Alexander unveiling the Djerassi Hall sign in the company of Martina Strong (US Embassy), ACS President Dr. Richard T. Ewing, Nikol Kralimarkova (Class of 2017), and Dr. Roger Whitaker (Chair of the ACS Board of Trustees)

Never one to shy away from definitive statements, in a 2013 conversation with ACS alumna Lisa Kostova ’97, Carl Djerassi said that scientists don’t have a sense of history. It is true that history is the story of change, while scientists are dedicated to the pursuit of everlasting truths. So Professor Djerassi deliberately set off to transcend this proverbial scientist’s mold.

Thinking outside the box is a prerequisite to a scientist of his caliber, but he set off to live outside the realm he had mastered, the realm he was recognized for. He set foot further than biochemistry, he ventured into entrepreneurship, into art, into public life. And here we want to pay tribute to his courage. Because in this pursuit of a different calling – and it was a public pursuit, – one’s very identity can be at stake.

When one has built a towering career and reputation, as Professor Djerassi had, to go out and alter it, enhance it, expand it, can be a frightening prospect. What if his plays didn’t play dramatically? What if his taste in art got questioned? What if his company didn’t prosper? These are not theoretical what-if’s to be tested in a sterile lab.

In a lab, a scientist – just like an artist faced with a blank page – can afford to ponder and experiment and live within the expanses of his mind. The scientist, or artist, may build constructs or tear down models, test the strength of his convictions and discover the weaknesses of his preparation and then learn and come back as a master. That is the beauty of it. That’s what is happening in that science building and that is the immediate purpose of it.

But then, the awesome thing is when the scientist, having mastered that, transcends it, steps out into the world, acquires – by his own design – that sense of history, of actual, contemporary change taking place in the everyday world… and manages to be a vital player in that too.

Einstein did it, as did Umberto Eco and Stephen Hawking. Carl Djerassi transcended his timeless scientific endeavors and managed to be just as effective and brilliant in his timely dealings with the burning questions of the living, breathing, contemporary world. That took much more than skill. It took extraordinary courage. But then, that was the kind of man he was.

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