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Djerassi, Reinvented

The Pill changed everything, especially one man's life.

by Bob Moser


NO FORMULA: His lab closed, the chemist experiments with words.
Jason Grow

CARL DJERASSI ends his 1992 autobiography, The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas’ Horse, with a teaser. He outlines a story that should become a staple of Stanford lore: how in 1983, English professor and biographer Diane Middlebrook informed Djerassi, her lover of six years, that she had decided to live with another man. How the chemist who synthesized the first steroid oral contraceptive, and thus gave birth to the Pill, responded in a way “simultaneously expected and strange.”

The strange part? At age 60, in the autumn of a career so distinguished it made him millions and put him on several lists of the millennium’s most important people, the Stanford chemistry professor became a scribbler. Or, as he puts it, “Out of my typewriter streamed a flood of bitter and self-pitying poems.” After the flood came an equally bitter novel of revenge, not so subtly titled Middles.

Djerassi cuts the story short. Alas, he writes with an almost audible sigh, “virtually everything about this topic remains unwritten.” But considering the source—a man the London Times deemed “known for many things, but not for his modesty”—readers had to know it would not remain unwritten.

Djerassi’s latest outpouring, This Man’s Pill: Reflections on the 50th Birthday of the Pill (Oxford, 2001; $25), ruminates on his famous synthesis. Along the way, we learn that Middlebrook sent her ex-lover posies on the anniversary of their breakup and Djerassi replied with “a selection of the more brutally frank chapters of Middles.” Surprisingly, this Farm power couple got back together and eventually married.

Middlebrook dissuaded Djerassi from trying to publish Middles. But by 1989, his first novel, Cantor’s Dilemma, came out. Since then, he has shuttered his Stanford lab and produced four more novels, a short-story collection, two plays, a volume of poetry and his life’s story, which Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould calls “the very best of scientific autobiography.” Naturally, Djerassi’s literary output has been inventive. He calls his novels and stories “science-in-fiction,” a fresh genre that deals in genuine science and its “tribal culture.”


Since Djerassi considers himself an “intellectual polygamist,” maybe it was inevitable that his new book would really be two books. The first part of This Man’s Pill discusses the social and chemical history of the Pill. The second, where we get the rest of the Middlebrook story, details how the Pill changed its inventor from a hard scientist to a relative softy.

Most likely to stir controversy—and make some readers cheer—is Djerassi’s emphatic defense of the Pill as a liberating agent for women. His rhetorical claws swipe both at feminists who have criticized it as a “male” invention with damning side effects and at conservatives who have blamed it for a host of moral laxities. Djerassi has sharpened these arguments in three decades of teaching reproductive politics at Stanford; one senses these classes must be full of fireworks. Here’s a sample blast about the controversial RU-486 abortion pill: “The outrage of the anti-abortionists was understandable because RU-486 promises to decentralize the provision of abortion to a woman’s bedroom, which can neither be bombed nor picketed.”

The more personal passages suffer at times from Djerassi’s unwillingness to pull back the curtain on his emotions. The best way to get a full glimpse of the man is to pay attention to the way he tells his own story. His narration uses both self-effacing humor (mocking that flood of bitter poems) and self-aggrandizement (quotes from the more glowing reviews of his novels). Watching these warring urges is like watching a psychic tennis match: modesty versus immodesty at center court. Ultimately, immodesty triumphs—game, set and match. But the contest is endearingly entertaining: you know Djerassi is trying to rein himself in but, finally, just can’t. And too much modesty in a man of such varied accomplishments would sound forced.

Still, the story of Djerassi’s “softening” from workaholic scientist and industrialist to social-sciences teacher and littérateur needs no flourishes to inspire a reader’s creative fantasies. This born-again writer credits the Pill for his transformation first into a social thinker, writing about the politics that have derailed subsequent contraceptive breakthroughs, and then into a fiction writer and dramatist, determined to make science accessible to general audiences.

If you come away from This Man’s Pill certain of anything, it’s that Djerassi will make a good run at another ambition. “In view of my birth date,” he writes, “I do not fall within the group of academics subject to compulsory retirement, a fluke that tempts me to fantasize about becoming the first non-retired centenarian on the Stanford faculty.”

The intervening 22 years will no doubt warrant another book full of rhetorical sparklers and subtle surprises. Long live immodesty.

Bob Moser, a staff writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., was a 2000-01 John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford.