An Interview with Carl Djerassi
Photo of Carl Djerassi

Interview by Jill Wolfson, San Jose Mercury News; and Jay Chien, Leland High School

Interview photos by Len Lahman, San Jose Mercury News

Transcribed by Jean Ricket, Tech Museum volunteer


Jay Chien

The son of Jewish physicians, Carl Djerassi grew up in pre-war Vienna and fled the Nazis in 1938. When he was 16 years old, he arrived in New York penniless. A few years later, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Kenyon College in Ohio.

His first job was as a junior chemist with the Swiss pharmaceutical company Ciba, where he was part of the team credited with the discovery of the antihistamine Pyribenzamine. He obtained his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin and then went to work at a little known Syntex lab in Mexico City.

It was there, in 1951, that Djerassi directed the synthesis of the first oral contraceptive for women and became known throughout the world as the "father of the birth- control pill."

For this achievement he received the National Medal of Science, the first Wolf Prize in Chemistry and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Since 1959, Djerassi has been Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University, while also serving as president of Syntex Research. He is the founder of Zoecon, a company that develops approaches to insect control.

Most recently, Djerassi has turned from practicing chemistry to writing books, publishing a collection of short stories, poems, a scientific autobiography, a collection of memoirs and several novels.

Djerassi also runs The Djerassi Resident Artists Program near Woodside, which provides residencies and studio space for artists in the visual arts, literature, choreography and music. He spoke with writer Jill Wolfson and student Jay Chien.

Chien :   The first thing I was told about you is that you are a science fiction book writer. Is that right?
Djerassi :   Terrible, terrible, terrible! I will never forgive you. It is science-in-fiction. I had never written a single word of fiction, never written a single poem, never written any non-scientific prose until I was past 60 years old. It's not that I had this burning ambition in life to write fiction. I wasn't sitting around for decades thinking I wanted to become a writer.

It is very different from going into math, or even going into science. Writing is one of the few occupations when the older you are, the better off you are, because all fiction in the end has to be based on personal experience: either you have experienced it, or you have read about it, or you have met other people.

You may ask why I decided to write. Because I wanted to lead one more very different intellectual life, and to a scientist, nothing is more different that writing fiction. Fiction is where you can supposedly invent anything; as a scientist, you are not supposed to make up anything.


Writing is one of the few occupations when the older you are, the better off you are, because all fiction in the end has to be based on personal experience.
I mean, you can invent if it is a true invention, but you can't make up something. It is either true or it is false. There is no such thing as truth or falsehood in fiction. Everything is permitted.

Man is simply obsessed by the idea of wanting to read his own obituary. I have often fantasized about this.
Wolfson :   The process of writing fiction, the creative process of doing science. You say they are different and I think the general public would think of them as being totally different. But do you find similarities?
Djerassi :   In one of my books, I really tried to answer that exact question. Sure the process is a different one, in that one is an experimental process and the one is a free flowing imaginative one.

I think they are all driven by ego. Many people pretend that they are not driven by it. I am just honest about it.

But the motivation and what drives people to do either the one or the other or what drives people to do any creative work is much more similar than people would like to admit.

And I think the motivation, in particular, is self-centered, ego centrical, the desire for fame or recognition. Man is simply obsessed by the idea of wanting to read his own obituary. I have often fantasized about this. You are too young to worry about obituaries, but I imagine almost anyone would say that it would be fun to read one's obituary, because it would be fun to be a fly on the wall, and on the wall of rooms where you would not be admitted.

Wolfson :   Is this what still drives you?

Djerassi :   Yes, very much so.

Wolfson: Have you ever met anyone who is not driven by ego?

Djerassi: I have probably met them, but I did not know that, because they must be so rare that they just simply escaped my attention. But the circles in which I cruise around, particularly among scientists, and among writers, I think they are all driven by ego. Many people pretend that they are not driven by it. I am just honest about it.


Fiction is where you can supposedly invent anything; as a scientist, you are not supposed to make up anything.

Let's say, you made it up to Mount Everest, and you climbed down again and told no one about this. That would be the equivalent to doing research, purely for research sake, just to solve a problem, and not even announce it to the public. Now, in the case of a mountain climber, it doesn't make much difference whether he or she announces their climbing.


Fiction writing is not dependent on other people and if this book were never published, this would be no great tragedy, except to me.

In science, if you just do the scientific work and do not tell anyone about it, it makes an enormous difference. And this is where the fundamental difference between scientific writing and creative writing, because in science, you are always dependent on the work of others, and you have to publish it in order for them to know it.


Whereas, the scientific papers, the number that I have published, it would be a tragedy, if the work had been done and never been published.

Whereas, this fiction writing is not dependent on other people and if this book were never published, this would be no great tragedy, except to me. Whereas, the scientific papers, the number that I have published, it would be a tragedy, if the work had been done and never been published.

Wolfson :   What has been the reaction of the scientific community and your colleagues to your fiction?
Djerassi :   The vast majority of chemists don't read any fiction, so therefore there are an awful lot of them who haven't read any of these, other than that they vaguely know that I am writing fiction.

In my fiction, I am not romanticizing the position of a scientist, nor am I demonizing it. I really try to describe them as what they really are, human beings, with a lot of very interesting qualities, and some foibles. People assume that scientists are just lily white people who have never suffered from any of the human faults. We are not any more honest, basically, than the average person.

Chien :   People have described you as a Renaissance man. Have you heard that one before?
Djerassi :   Sure. That comes from two kinds of people. The first one doesn't even know what a Renaissance man was. Secondly, the ones who say it as a compliment, and I take it as such, mean that I am someone who is also interested in art, and not just in science, someone who is interested in writing fiction, and not just in lab work.

I really try to describe them as what they really are, human beings, with a lot of very interesting qualities, and some foibles.

During the Renaissance, people could be good and interested and productive in many different areas. That's so much more difficult now, because so much more has to be known. In just my own field, more has been done in chemistry in the last 20 years than in the entire history of chemistry. The same is true of physics, or biology, and so on.

Chien :   Do you think that this society resembles the times before the Renaissance, and that people should start questioning things, take a look at the world around them more, instead of honoring accepting standards?
Djerassi :   Do you think that we accept accepted standards? I don't think that is completely true. I think there is nothing wrong with asking questions. The trouble is that we don't seem to have the background. We don't teach people any more how to ask questions, particularly not in high school. I think all our problems start in grade school, and in high school. A lot of remedial work then has to be done in college, the things that should have been taught in high school. I think we should teach people to ask more questions, but based on facts.

People assume that scientists are just lily white people who have never suffered from any of the human faults. We are not any more honest, basically, than the average person.

This is my objection, incidentally, when I am being interviewed on the radio, on TV, when they ask a very complex question -- let's say about birth control, which is not an easy issue.They say "Doctor, tell me this in 30 seconds." That is ludicrous. How can you go and discuss these things, how can you transmit the information, give the pros and cons? They expect a black and white answer. There is no such thing.