Thrills, spills and pills

March 6, 1998

In the first of our series on world thinkers, Carl Djerassi, the inventor of the female contraceptive pill, tells Martin Ince why he won't be doing the same for men

Carl Djerassi changed the world while he was still in his twenties. Now 74, rich and famous, he is making progress in a new, literary, life - while still retaining his chair in chemistry, the subject that brought him fame and fortune.

Djerassi is witty, with the worldliness of someone who has lived a long time in diverse surroundings. Almost 60 years after arriving in the United States, he has no trace of an American accent, sounding like the Central European he is.

He is one swirl in the vast stream of Jewish talent that fled Central Europe under the threat of Nazism. Britain, the United States and other countries profited mightily from this exodus, but in Djerassi's case the benefits have been global. He worked in industry in the early years of his research career, mainly with the US arm of Ciba, the Swiss drugs firm now called Novartis, and has always been comfortable working in and with companies. In his late twenties, he took the apparently eccentric decision to quit the US for Mexico to work at Syntex, a small pharmaceuticals development firm that promised interesting work in a fascinating place. The result was the female oral contraceptive, a technology whose significance is still debated over 30 years later.

In the late 1960s, doubts about the pill - an artificial version of the hormone that prevents women conceiving again while pregnant - were raised by a wide variety of groups. They ranged from Catholics, who object to interference with natural fertility processes, to feminists, who took issue with a number of pill problems, not least the fact that men had got together to produce a pill for women but not for themselves. The pill, they pointed out, is not without its risks to women's health, particularly in its early versions.

Djerassi points out that a new generation of feminists is kinder to his invention, seeing it as a device that gives them control over their fertility. He now teaches in feminist studies at Stanford. His wife, Diane Middlebrook, has encouraged his interest in feminist thinking. And he is a strong supporter of women in science. He stresses, too, that one thing alone that the pill has done - reducing the number of abortions performed worldwide - ought to justify its invention in women's eyes.

He makes a prediction, too - that in the 21st century, the pill will still be something taken by women and that it will not be so very different to the one he and colleagues developed in the 1950s. There is promising research on new forms of female contraception, especially on the accurate detection of female fertility, which could make something like the rhythm method - a completely natural contraceptive technique - a lot more reliable. What is far less likely is a pill for men.

In a recent lecture in London on the gloomy prospects for a male pill, Djerassi said that men's indifference to controlling their fertility was only part of the problem. More important is their comparatively minor role in making babies: all men do is provide sperm. "With women," he says, "there are far more possibilities because there are far more processes with which you can interfere." Moreover, men are fertile for longer than women and might have to take the pill for 40 or more years. "With a pill for women, all you are doing is preventing an existing egg developing. For a male pill to work, you would have to shut down a major function, sperm production, for a long time," which is potentially far more dangerous.

But the killer blow is the lack of interest in the pharmaceutical industry in developing a male pill. "Few big drug companies are working on fertility and even fewer on male fertility. The lead times are long, the risks are large, and the legal dangers are huge. Every male who took the pill and became impotent or got prostate cancer would get a lawyer the next day."

Djerassi, who is researching male fertility, concedes that the male pill is also potentially less important than the female one was. "Forget about the 'developed' and 'underdeveloped' world," he says. "It is better to think of the developed world - where the over-85s are the fastest-growing group - as 'geriatric', and the underdeveloped world - where children are - as 'paediatric'." In the first the emphasis is on diseases of old age such as Alzheimer's, while in the second, malaria and other infectious diseases are the focus. And even in those parts of the world where population is growing, the availability of contraception plays only a minor role in reducing the number of children families have. "The low fertility rates in Italy and Spain show that cultural and economic factors are the key, that motivation, not the quality of contraceptives available, is what matters."

Djerassi's academic home since the 1950s has been Stanford University in California, an entrepreneurial place that is the research base for Silicon Valley. But his fortune was founded on the deal he made on going to Mexico. Increasing Syntex share prices brought in sums he is not prepared to talk about in detail but which must run into many tens of millions of dollars.

At Stanford, Djerassi says, he has published about 1,000 papers, and led major research groups. But in the interests of making the best use of his time - something of a Djerassi obsession - he has done little laboratory work of his own for decades. He does publish scientific papers, but his interests now centre on his life as "a novelist who is starting to be a playwright and still does some chemistry."

Despite this apparent change of gear, the work he is generating is in line with his earlier interests. His new metier is what he calls science-in-fiction, taking care to stress that this is not the same as science fiction. The aim is to create novels and plays that use real science to inform the public. Issues tackled so far include scientific competition, ageism and feminism in science, and the prospects of new reproductive technology. The last features in his newest novel, Menachem's Seed, and in his play ICSI, named after a technique for the artificial fertilisation of eggs.

The books are a lively read, but a new generation of feminists is unlikely to be impressed by aspects of his work, such as the "alpine breasts" of his heroine, who joins the music-lover's version of the Mile-high Club at a performance of the Vienna Opera. Next and last in the series of four novels is NO, named for the amazing physiological properties of nitrogen oxide, which is vital amongst other things for the male erection. Although it is coincidental that Djerassi's research interest in stereochemistry (the study of complex molecules in three dimensions) led to a key invention to do with sex, his novels suggest that the coincidence chimes with his own enthusiasms.

Human biology and fertility are a promising field for the novelist, Djerassi says, because of their social, political, medical and religious ramifications. But he adds that they are often neglected because of their complexity. Today's writers have little interest in C. P. Snow-type bridging between apparently different cultures. "'Didactic' has turned into a dirty word for novelists," he laments. Jurassic Park, he reckons, failed in two ways - the science was absurd (he makes fun of it in his novel, The Bourbaki Gambit), and despite author Michael Crichton's research background, it failed to explain the motivation of the scientists involved. But Djerassi has found fiction a useful device in his fiction and in teaching. His postdoctoral students write fiction to explore ethical problems in science.

As Djerassi sees it, novels are a way of expressing complexity, in contrast to science where things tend to be either right or wrong. He says: "The colour of most of these problems is grey, not black or white. There are political parties whose colours are blue, red or green, but never a grey one. Perhaps we ought to adopt grey as the political colour of the 21st century."

Djerassi regards himself as an active professor with no retirement date planned. But he has reached the point where he is thinking hard about what his life has meant, particularly since a 1985 brush with cancer. Menachem's Seed devotes a lot of space to Jewishness, which is becoming more important to Djerassi - in a completely secular way. He says: "When I came to the US it was not something one advertised. I was the first Jewish chemistry professor at Wayne State (his previous institution) and at Stanford, but now there are several at Stanford, especially in the medical school." He says: "My Jewishness is a European one, not the more American style of someone like Philip Roth."

Despite his own literary endeavours, it is probable that Djerassi will be remembered by the artistic world as a patron more than as a creator. He has long supported living artists. The suicide of his daughter, Pamela, in 1978, described movingly in his autobiography The Pill, Pygmy Chimps and Degas' Horse, spurred him to create a memorial to her. The result is the Djerassi Foundation, near San Francisco, on land bought with his Syntex profits. It runs the Djerassi Resident Artists Program for all kinds of artists from novelists to dancers, and over 1,000 have stayed so far.

"I don't believe in leaving much money to one's offspring. Instead I want to perpetuate something I feel strongly about, and as there is already lots of financial support for science, I decided to support the arts." He has also been a generous donor of art, contributing to major sculptures for the new British Library and for the new city library in San Francisco.

Djerassi likes London. He does his creative writing there and is excited by its artistic vitality. But he has one complaint. Although ICSI has been staged there, British publishers are resistant to his science in fiction quartet. A deal with a British fiction house, he implies, would put the seal on his Anglophilia.

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