An Interview with Carl
Djerassi

Chien :   How did you get interested in issues like birth control and the human reproductive system? Could you talk about the controversy over the use of the birth control pill?
Djerassi :   I don't think the problems of birth control is a scientific one. They are social, and political, religious, economic, legal. By having started in science and then realizing that some of the societal aspects are really more difficult and more important, I became interested in these.

I didn't start out that way, I started out as a chemist, who was interested in the chemistry of steroids. Do you know what steroids are?

Chien: Like hormones?

Djerassi: Yes, but not all the hormones are steroids, but all the sex hormones are.

So I was already a graduate student before I came upon the male and female sex hormones, as a chemist. So I became, first of all, interested in the chemistry of these, and then in the biology of these and then, eventually, in the clinical application of these, and then into birth control.

Chien :   As a student, did you have any role models of your own?
Djerassi :   The strange thing is that I didn't. I think one of the reasons was that I was in too much of a hurry. I started so young. By luck, not because I was a genius at all, I graduated from college when I was 18 years old. So I had my Ph.D. before I was 22 and I had worked in between. I was in a tremendous rush and didn't have enough time to have a role model.

I read about Madam Curie, and Louis Pasteur, but I can't say that these were my role models. I had to do it sort of on my own.

I read about Madam Curie, and Louis Pasteur, but I can't say that these were my role models. I had to do it sort of on my own.


Louis Pasteur
Chien :   You were not born here, but in Vienna. What did you think the United States was like before you came here? What did you think of it after you got here?
Djerassi :   I literally came as a refugee. I came during the Hitler days. Both my parents and I were Jewish so we had to leave. It was a question of wanting to go somewhere where that danger does not exist. At that time, America was -- and still is -- considered one of the places where you find shelter. I didn't know very much about the United States.

I literally came as a refugee. I came during the Hitlerdays. Both my parents and I were Jewish so we had to leave.

This was in the pre-TV days. In Europe, you didn't learn very much about American history, any more than Americans today learn very much about European history. I was 14 years old when I left Vienna.


I don't think the problem of birth control is a scientific one. They are social, and political, religious, economic, legal.

I can tell you an amusing story. Mrs. Roosevelt, the wife of the President at that time, was to me sort of like a Queen of America, like Queen Elizabeth of England. When I was 16 years old, I wrote a letter to Mrs. Roosevelt. I said: "Dear Mrs. Roosevelt, I need a scholarship." Can you imagine? It would be like you writing a letter to Mrs. Clinton and asking for a scholarship. First of all, the chances of her ever getting it is very slight, and getting an answer would be even slighter.

But actually, I got an answer. The letter was not written by her, but by a secretary. And she actually got me a scholarship! This is how I ended up in a college in the mid-west, in Missouri, a place I didn't even know existed.


But what the hell has the pill got to do with pygmy chimps? In my mind, it has a great deal to do with it.

So that became my idea of America. It was very idealistic, a place where you wrote ot the Queen and the Queen actually did something for you. This is, of course, why I am in great favor of receiving immigrants.

Chien :   I find the title of your autobiography very amusing. ("The Pill, Pygmy Chimps and Degas' Horse") Could you explain what it means?
Djerassi :   The pill is, of course, obvious, it's about birth control. But what the hell has the pill got to do with pygmy chimps? In my mind, it has a great deal to do with it.

Pygmy chimps, it now turns out, are the closest relatives to humans, biochemical and in every other way.

This is because I've done a lot of work in Africa, and I've always been very much interested in work with lesser developed countries. Pygmy chimps live in only one country, which is basically Zaire.


"Pigmy Chimp," or Bonobo

When I was there, we were interested in animal models for reproductive biological research. Pygmy chimps, it now turns out, are the closest relatives to humans, biochemical and in every other way.

Degas' horse? Edgar Degas is a very famous French painter and artist, and also a sculptor. There is a small bronze horse that Edgar Degas made which I gave to the museum in San Francisco. So I use this as my example of an interest in art.


When I was born, there were 1.9 billion people in this world. Now there are 5.8 billion. At my 100th birthday, there will be 8.5 billion. That has never happened in human history before and will never happen again.

So, it's scientific work, third world country interaction and art. Maybe that is a renaissance man.

Wolfson :   I have a series of quick questions I would like to ask you. What do you understand now that you did not understand when you were 19 or 20?
Djerassi :   You mean in science, or altogether?

Wolfson: Your choice.

Djerassi: A tremendous amount has happened in the time you are talking about -- half a century. I don't live in a vacuum. If I had lived those 50 years on a desert island, then I think the answer would have been an interior answer, but the answer that I have to give you is one that is a reflection of the impact of the world which I live in. I think one of the overwhelming ones is that, when I was born, there were 1.9 billion people in this world. Now there are 5.8 billion. At my 100th birthday, there will be 8.5 billion. That has never happened in human history before and will never happen again. That during a person's lifetime, the world population has quadrupled.

Wolfson :   What have you personally, internally, learned during that period?

Djerassi :   Well, internally, I think it's the usual business. I do ask myself the question: What would I do differently if I had to lead my life over again? I would not lead the same life that I had done before. I would be less of a workaholic. I would be less frenetic. I would simply realize that one cannot do everything that one wants to do within a lifetime, even though I still have this obsession with not having enough time to do things.


I think it would be interesting to be a woman, now. A modern woman would be very interesting because things are changed. It is exciting to be an American woman. I think, in many other countries, it is not the case yet.

And still, in spite of the fact that I realize it, I continue. This obsession with time is a pointless one. If you recognize this, I think the quality of your life will be, in some respects, not in all respects, but in some respects, will be a much better one. I think you will live a more human existence.