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Djerassi - What matters to me and why

STANFORD - “Any suicide is also a message to survivors,” Carl Djerassi said by way of introduction to the passage he was about to read from his autobiography.

Djerassi, professor of chemistry at Stanford, was speaking to a group of more than 50 on Feb. 15 in the side chapel of Memorial Church, as part of the “What Matters to Me and Why” series. Part conversation with the audience, part a reading from his poetry, fiction and autobiography, the session was his description of a life of “intellectual bigamy, indeed polygamy.”

The first to synthesize a practical birth control pill, Djerassi, 71, has been a leading organic chemist and an industrialist, a collector of art and an author. His novels, in a form he calls “science-in-fiction,” turn on the personal crises and ethical dilemmas unique to the culture of basic scientific research.

“Until a few years ago I considered myself a professor of chemistry who also writes fiction,” he said. “Now I consider myself a fiction writer who also does chemistry.”

Sitting with his left foot propped on a portable footstool - the stiff leg, he explained, was broken years ago in a skiing accident - he read from works such as “The Clock Runs Backwards,” a poem looking back on achievements and marriages, art collected and science done, the birth of his daughter and son, to his childhood in Vienna, fleeing Hitler's Anschluss during World War II.

In the poem and in readings from the opening of his novel The Bourbaki Gambit and from his autobiography, The Pill, Pygmy Chimps and Degas' Horse, the theme of suicide recurred. Djerassi explained that his daughter, Pamela, a talented artist, was living on a ranch at Skyline in the hills above Stanford when she took her own life at the age of 28. Djerassi dedicated much of the land to an artists' colony, a residential retreat that has been host to more than 700 artists, writers and musicians over the years.

The passage from the autobiography seemed at first to be about a search for materials for one of those artists, British sculptor David Nash. On Thanksgiving Day, 1989, Djerassi and Nash hiked over the Skyline hills looking for a felled redwood tree at least five feet in diameter, for a three-part sculpture Nash planned to build. On a chance hint from a logger, they searched for a tree the man said was the right size, but might be rotten. They found the wood, perfectly sound, and, Djerassi wrote, he was dumbfounded at the site.

“Eleven years ago,” he read from the book, “I had hobbled here as fast as my stiff leg would carry me - but from the opposite direction, toward this fence across which the massive trunk now lies, broken into three enormous pieces. It is the spot where my daughter killed herself, where I have never dared to return.”

Afterward, a student asked what he thought was the significance of the tree. Djerassi paused to reflect before answering, “This huge tree, which fell in this spot - of this we made three spectacular sculptures. My interpretation is that something living did come out of my daughter's death.”

Another student asked about his “intellectual polygamy.” She said, “I feel guilty whenever I take time from my research for something else.”

Djerassi said he first married at the age of 19. “That was much too young, but it meant I had responsibilities. I decided I would not work in the laboratory at night or on weekends. But I was extremely well organized.”

He admitted, however, that such a decision probably would not be possible for a graduate student of today. When he asked a fellow chemist if he would take on such a student, the man said. “No. I expect my graduate students to work 80 hours a week. Even a well-organized person could not accomplish as much in 40 hours.”

Still, Djerassi advised students who are both artists and scientists to learn how to work in the culture of science first. “An average person cannot walk into a chemistry class for fun, but an artist can walk into an art class for fun. I would enormously encourage that: A person able to cope with science and also work in art is a much more interesting person.”

A young man who introduced himself as a graduate student in chemistry asked, “Could you talk to the chemistry department about encouraging grad students who want to be human, who want not to just be scientists? We like philosophy, we like poetry, as well as science.”

Djerassi told him there should be no barrier to graduate students who want to invite people who interest them to come and talk about topics other than science. He pointed to Quintus Jett, organizer of the “What Matters to Me” series, and said, “This man invited me, and he doesn't know me from Adam.”

Asked whether he thought scientists should get involved in the ethical and social implications of their work, he said, “I feel strongly that scientists should take responsibility.” He said he now lectures in the Feminist Studies program at Stanford to talk about the personal and political choices involved in birth control. “I started with the 'hardware' of birth control - the Pill. Now I work on the software, the social issues.”

He said the sexual revolution of the 1960s and '70s, with its positive and negative impacts, would have occurred with or without a new contraceptive. In the years since, he said, one great disappointment has been how little research has been done on other contraceptives.

“No contraceptive, not surely the Pill, is ideal. We need a contraceptive supermarket where everyone, even the Pope, could participate - [in the Pope's case] because reproductive science has advanced enough that simple aids could be devised to make the rhythm method more reliable.”



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