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Dawn Levy, News Service (650) 725-1944; e-mail:

Carl Djerassi reflects on the Pill as it nears its 50th birthday

Few men think much about how the Pill affects them. But Carl Djerassi, a professor of chemistry at Stanford University and leader of the research team that synthesized the first steroid oral contraceptive on October 15, 1951, wrote an entire book on how the Pill has touched his life.

The Pill helped usher in the sexual revolution of the 1960s and '70s. By separating sex from procreation, it gave women more control over their lives, allowing them to enter -- and forever alter -- the modern workplace. Today it is the most preferred form of contraception in many countries and therefore affects national political agendas. But the Pill also changes individual lives -- Djerassi's included.

This Man's Pill (Oxford University Press, to be released Oct. 15, 2001) is a strikingly open and personal account of a scientist recast by his own invention. Djerassi says he used to be an "unredeemed chemist," one involved solely in the technical aspects of reproductive research. In the middle of his career, he was a workaholic leader of a large Stanford research laboratory, president of a growing pharmaceutical company, Syntex Research, and chairman of two fledgling biotechnology firms.

But the Pill made Djerassi a "softer chemist," he writes, one deeply interested in how science affects society. It broadened his teaching and his world perspective. And it turned him toward writing that reached beyond academic audiences. Without the Pill, he writes in the concluding sentence of the book, he would have been "a much less socially engaged individual. If I were a neutral observer of that Carl Djerassi, especially were that observer a woman, I probably would have turned away. No wonder I am grateful, deeply grateful, to this man's Pill."

Djerassi writes mostly about his own life in This Man's Pill, but the book is no weighty confessional. It covers different ground than did his 1992 autobiography The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse. He speaks with candor about the love who left him, his first middle-age attempts at poetry, his reconnection to an Austrian childhood and the suicide of his daughter.

Yet the book is not just self-musings. Djerassi includes details about the history and science of the Pill. Woven into his own story is an explicit genealogy of the Pill, the first instance of the capitalized "P," and society's early and late reactions to the Pill from feminists to religious fundamentalists. He argues that the Pill is now largely unchallenged as a contraceptive method because both government and industry have stopped looking for better alternatives.

Though Djerassi has been called a father of the Pill, he suggests that, as a chemist, he played more of a maternal role. In drug development, he says, "the progression is always from chemistry to biology to medicine." The mother chemists first provide the drug, or the egg. The father biologists probe the drug with tests that trigger its development like sperm fertilizes and triggers the development of the egg. Then doctors act as midwives to bring the drug-baby to the world.

"Many chemists, many mothers therefore, walk away from the baby," Djerassi says. "The baby is then brought up by someone else." But unlike other mother chemists, Djerassi has kept an active interest in the life of the child. "It's a middle-aged kid, and the mother still cares," he says.

Djerassi shows that concern now through writing and teaching. It wasn't always that way. "Until 1969," he writes, "I would have considered myself a 'hard' scientist ... unwilling to go proselytizing among the scientifically untrained, unconvinced public." But in 1969, he did something unusual as a chemist by submitting a public policy piece to Science about the global implications of U.S. contraceptive research. And in 1970, he published another article about the feasibility of a Pill for men, Birth Control After 1984. "The thoughts behind these two public policy articles," Djerassi writes, "had convinced me that politics, rather than science, would play the dominant role in shaping the future of human birth control -- a personal conclusion that not only affected my decisions as a research director in industry, but also caused a dramatic shift in my role as a university teacher -- a transformation that would never have occurred without the Pill."

In the early 1970s, Djerassi designed a course for Stanford undergraduates called "Biosocial Aspects of Birth Control." He went on to create a graduate writing course on biomedical ethics. He continues to develop classes that help students investigate how scientific advances in sexual reproduction affect the world socially and politically.

Djerassi eventually closed his laboratory doors, but he continues to teach and writes more than ever. Partly through the influence of his third and current wife, Diane Wood Middlebrook, an author and English professor at Stanford University, Djerassi tried his hand at poetry and eventually, fiction. He writes now in a new literary genre he calls "science-in-fiction." Through novels and plays, he writes to educate and entertain a broad, nonscientific audience about technical topics. Many of his nine books and plays -- Menachem's Seed; NO; An Immaculate Misconception; The Pill, Pygmy Chimps and Degas' Horse; and now This Man's Pill -- grapple with the social aspects of reproductive technology.

Perhaps because the Pill changed the course of his own life so much, Djerassi can relate to how the Pill has changed women's lives. "If you are willing to put yourself into another person's position -- a man into a woman's, or one person into another -- you are likely to be more sympathetic to them, more understanding, less adversarial, less overpowering than you might be otherwise," he says.


By Lousia Dalton

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