Book Review

Hubert Rehm

Carl Djerassi:
In Retrospect: From the Pill to the Pen.

Paperback: 388 pages
Publisher: Imperial College Press (1 Nov. 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1783265329
ISBN-13: 978-1783265329
Price: 59.13 EUR (hard­cover), 21.60 EUR (paperback)

Carl Djerassi in retrospect - When Old Men Start to Blather

Can someone who writes boring novels be a good autobiographer? Your Lab Times reviewer investigates.

I had already read one of Carl Djerassi’s books. In the 1990’s, my PhD student Eva loaned me Cantors Dilemma. Because it was so boring I gave it back to Eva, although I usually keep borrowed books. From the Pill to the Pen is my second Djerassi tome. An old lady with an interest in biographies gifted it to me. She had also read the book and said,

“He seems very peacocky.”

“Those endless page-long quotes of his own works were really annoying.”

“It’s heavy-going at the beginning and gets ever more boring at the end.”

“He never got over not getting the N­obel Prize.”

I do not always have the same opinion as the old lady, so I wondered whether Djerassi would appeal to me. Someone who writes boring novels can still be a good autobiographer. Novels are mere invented nonsense, biographies have no plots to be dragged out by the head and shoulders, one must simply write down what happened. The writer does not drive the content, the content drives the writer. If something special happened to him and he resists “beautifying” it, books with everlasting worth can be created. Examples are The Questionnaire by Ernst von Salomon, Out of the Night by Richard Krebs and Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell.

Sadly, From the Pill to the Pen does not belong among those masterpieces.

“He seems very peacocky”...

In fact, the circumstance of having written an autobiography points towards vanity and From the Pen to the Pill is Djerassi’s third. Yes, Djerassi is peacocky, he skips nothing, not the stamp issued in his honour, not the antarctic glacier named after him, not the great merit-cross of the German republic, not the Lichtenberg medal and certainly not his 1973 National Medal of Science, presented by Richard Nixon. But this preening is impossible to resent, mostly because it is so obvious and also a bit ludicrous. Annoying for me were Djerassi’s endless references to “being Jewish”. By the end of the book, it is not even clear what Djerassi means when he talks of Jewishness.

Equally annoying, in my view, were the gazillion times he whinily mentions the forced migration from Austria, along with the declaration that he was the mother and not the father of the pill for the umpteenth time, and the endless rant of the homeless concerning the concept of “home” or rather Heimat.

Also annoying are descriptions of the furnishings of his many residences.

Sensitive to criticism

Were he still alive, he would certainly have taken umbrage at this review. Djerassi was a thin-skinned character; he reacted sensitively to criticism and was easily offended. In From the Pill to the Pen he covers several pages ranting about a piffling article in Chemie in unserer Zeit, which depicted him in the wrong way. He took offence when Stanford university neglected to send him a birthday card on his 80th birthday. He had done so much for the university and it was his academic home, Djerassi writes.

Given his boastful nature, it is somewhat amazing that Djerassi accurately depicts the development of the pill and the synthesis of the agent norethindrone in 1951. He does not praise himself but emphasises the work of his colleagues. He mentions Maximilian Ehrenstein’s (1899-1968) spadework, a person who, for the first time, managed to remove the C19 between the A and B rings of the steroidskeleton, a feat which nowadays would never have been published due to lack of reproducability. Djerassi commends his PhD student Luis Miramontes, who did the synthesising work and refers to Elva Shipley, who examined the biology of nor­ethindrone at the University of Wisconsin. Djerassi even mentions the Austrian Ludwig Haberlandt (1885-1932), who suggested the possibility of an oral contraceptive long before him.

Not only the pill

Djerassi’s scientific work was not exhausted in synthesising norethindrone. In 1951, he was the first to synthesise cortisone out of diosgenin and was later one of the pioneers of optical rotatory dispersion (ORD). He wrote text books which sold superbly: Djerassi built a swimming pool from the revenue of a single book. For comparison, your reviewer’s text book revenues were just enough for a bird house. Djerass­i also seems to have been an able, unconventional teacher (an opinion shared by the old lady who was mentioned at the beginning). The scientific parts of the book are the best.

From 1952 onwards, Djerassi no longer toiled over lab benches; it seems that he quickly switched from practical chemistry to the writing of grant applications. One reason was that,

My original dream about the supposed freedom of life in academe, especially nowadays, was also naive, because the search for monetary support for one’s research is so tough, time-consuming, and even demeaning that it constitutes a form of control frequently more oppressive than that always assumed to exist in industry.

“He never got over not getting ...”

I can’t say if it nettled Djerassi that he never received the Nobel Prize. He was certainly worried about the demographic impact of his (co)-inventions, with pages of loosely-veiled apologies. For instance, he makes the point that,

The birth rates in Japan were declining before the pill.

Actually the pill-gap hypothesis, that the introduction of the pill in 1969/1961 is the reason for sharp declines in birth rates (in the US from 1961, Germany from 1968, Mexico, the birthplace of the pill, from 1971), has now been proven wrong. In fact, the decline of birth rates in the sixties are part of a development which started 130 years ago, beginning in 1890. It has to do with the employment of women and the lust for wealth. Although one would assume that earning more money leads to more children, game theory and evolution have their own laws, following, using Djerassi’s words, the law of unintended consequences. Thus, residents of developed countries do not leave their genes behind but containers full of garbage and polished gravestones.

His invention made him a rich man

With vehemence Djerassi opposes the accusation that he received a cut of every package of pills sold. He didn’t get a cut. He invented the pill as an employee, not as a partner of the Mexican company Syntex. But the pill nevertheless made a rich man out of him, via company shares and enhanced reputation. Maybe not as rich as some believed, but it was enough for a 1,200 acre ranch in California. By the way, the goal was not the pill when Djerass­i (working for Syntex) was synthesising norethindrone. In 1951 the pharmaceutical industry had no interest in contraceptives. The first oral contraceptive did not contain norethindrone, but, because of company policies, the steroid norethynodrel. It became the agent of the first oral contraceptive, which was commercialised in 1960.

Some questions remain

From the Pill to the Pen can be seen not only as an autobiography, but also – as befits a former resident of Vienna – an auto­psycho­analysis. Maybe because of this the tome seems unneccessarily boring and wordy. To psychoanalysis possibly belongs the contact ad in the German weekly Die Zeit, which Djerassi believes he could have written himself. Indeed, Djerassi seems to have read the contact ads in the Zeit regularly. This should not surprise us: The contact ads are the most interesting part of this central organ for politically-correct schoolteachers.

Despite or because of Djerassi’s prolixity questions remain. Why did Rosencrantz, the technical director of Syntex, hire, of all people, the then unknown Carl Djerassi? Djerassi did not apply for a job at Syntex.

Why did he have no children with his first wife Virginia?

Quite naive political views

An old man’s verbosity is, of course, forgivable. But Djerassi’s political views seem quite naive for a person of his experience. He styles himself a ‘male feminist’ for example. For him, a liberated woman is a person who governs her own fertility. The pill, together with the possibility of storing human eggs, liberates women from having to decide between children and career. But with increased age, women don’t just run dry on eggs – by the age of 35, 95 percent of human eggs are lost – but also on stamina to handle kids patiently. The storage of eggs is only a means to prevent last minute panic, a sedative.

Djerassi also believed that men should take care of birth control. The mother of the pill had herself undergone a vasectomy. But before the pill birth control was, for thousands of years, a man’s thing. Either intercourse had to be interrupted before ejaculation or a condom had to be used (the latter being a lust-killing matter of sheep intestines or fish skin). It was not until 1914 that Julius Fromm (1883-1945) a Jew from Berlin, invented the latex condom. Astonishingly, Djerassi omitted this fact: He possessed one of the biggest condom collections in the world. Fromm was virtually expropriated in 1937, his condom company was transferred to Nazi leader Göring’s aunt and Fromm himself migrated to London. Fromm had reason to be offended!

To continue with politics: Djerassi, of course and understandably, hated Hitler (although without him, he says, he would have followed in the steps of his father and become a doctor in Austria). Missing here is the fact that the Austria of Djerassi’s childhood differed in only two ways from Hitler’s Germany: Austria did not pursue an aggressive foreign policy and it didn’t bother its Jews. Apart from that the Austrian chancellor, Schuschnigg, was a dictator, who also maintained concentration camps (the Austrian term was Anhaltelager), a dogmatic orator and had a small moustache.

Anyhow, Djerassi could not acquire a taste for the gender-gaga prevalent on modern university campuses; he wasn’t that naive.

Skulking its way like a long quiet river

From the Pill to the Pen skulks its way through barren meadows like a long quiet river without fizzling or gaining pace. Only when describing the suicide of his daughter Pamela in 1978, at the time the only person close to Djerassi, the surface of his narrative ripples. Pamela, an artist, suffered from depression, intensified by chronic backache. This much is certain: Djerassi was affected deeply by the death of his daughter.

I could keep on writing but this review has become almost as wordy as Djerassi’s book. So I will finish at this point and don’t be offended: That’s how it is when old men start to blather.

Letzte Änderungen: 25.05.2015