Professor Emeritus Carl Djerassi celebrates 90th birthday with lecture at Stanford

February 3rd, 2014

Dozens of students, staff and faculty packed the Clark Center Auditorium last week to wish a happy 90th birthday year to CARL DJERASSI, a longtime professor at Stanford and a world-renowned chemist.

Fellow Stanford chemistry Professors RICHARD ZARE and W.E. MOERNER introduced their friend and brought the standing-room-only audience up to speed on Djerassi’s remarkable life achievements. Djerassi then took the podium for more than an hour to deliver a lecture he called “Beyond Chemistry: The Last 25 years of a Nonagenerian.”

If you’re not familiar with Djerassi’s name, you’ll surely recognize his work. Starting in the 1940s, he was a primary player in synthesizing the first commercial antihistamines, cortisone and norethindrone, the latter being the chemical basis of oral contraceptives, earning him the nickname “The Father of the Pill.” He was also at the forefront of efforts to apply physical measurements and computer artificial intelligence techniques to organic chemical problems, which transformed the field.

In 1952, Djerassi accepted a professorship of chemistry at Wayne State University, and joined Stanford faculty in the same role in 1959, earning emeritus status in 2002. In the years since his retirement, and for a decade before, Djerassi has followed his affinity for integrating science with the arts, chiefly through a technique he calls “science-in-fiction.”

Through several short stories, novels and plays, Djerassi has told fictional tales that describe realistic details and struggles of the day-to-day life of a scientist. In his first novel, Cantor’s Dilemma, he explores pressures that can drive a researcher to commit scientific fraud and how academia handles such a scandal.

In The Bourbaki Gambit, his second novel, he touches on the real conflicts that can arise when a group of scientists must divide credit for a major discovery. In NO, he pulls from his own experiences of commercializing a drug to illustrate the intersection of science and capitalism.

Later, he wrote plays surrounding similar topics as a way to showcase scientific dialogue. An Immaculate Misconception dealt with the science behind intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection, a type of artificial insemination, and the societal and ethical dilemmas surrounding the procedure.

In each case, he has presented readers intimate details that humanize scientists and their research, with the goal of making science more accessible to the general public.

“You can become an intellectual smuggler, by packaging the truth in a fictional context,” Djerassi told the crowd. “If it’s exciting enough, they’ll learn something. And I think that’s why my novels have been successful.”

On Feb. 8, Djerassi’s 2012 play Insufficiency will be performed at Stanford. The satire dives into the motivations, both academic and financial, that can play a deciding hand in whether professors are granted tenure. The event is open to the public. Visit the Stanford Event Calendar for details.