Carl Djerassi



Carl Djerassi was born in 1923 in Vienna, Austria, and received his education at Kenyon College (A.B. summa cum laude, 1942) and the University of Wisconsin (Ph.D., 1945). After four years as research chemist with CIBA Pharmaceutical Co. in Summit, New Jersey, he joined Syntex, S.A., in Mexico City in 1949 as associate director of chemical research. In 1952 he accepted a professorship of chemistry first at Wayne State University, and in 1959 at Stanford University where he became Prof. Emeritus in 2002. Concurrently with his academic positions, he also held various posts at Syntex during the period 1957-1972, including that of President of Syntex Research (1968-1972). In 1968, he helped found Zoecon Corporation, a company dedicated to developing novel approaches to insect control, serving as its board chairman until 1988.


Djerassi has published over 1200 articles and 7 monographs on natural products (steroids, alkaloids, antibiotics, lipids, terpenoids), and on applications of physical measurements (notably optical rotatory dispersion, magnetic circular dichroism, and mass spectrometry) and computer artificial intelligence techniques to organic chemical problems. In medicinal chemistry he was associated with the initial developments in the fields of oral contraceptives (Norethindrone), antihistamines (Pyribenzamine) and topical corticosteroids (Synalar).


For the first synthesis of a steroid contraceptive, Djerassi received the National Medal of Science (1973), the first Wolf Prize in Chemistry (1978), and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (1978). He received the National Medal of Technology for his contributions in the insect control field (1991). The American Chemical Society honored him with its Award in Pure Chemistry (1958), Baekeland Medal (1959), Fritzsche Award (1960), Award for Creative Invention (1973), Award in the Chemistry of Contemporary Technological Problems (1983), Priestley Medal (1992), and the Willard Gibbs Medal (1997). Other recognitions include the American Institute of Chemists Freedman Foundation Patent Award (1970), its Chemical Pioneer Award (1973) as well as its Gold Medal (2004); the Society for Chemical Industry’s Perkin Medal (1975), the Bard Award in Medicine and Science (1983), the Roussel Prize (Paris) (1988), the Discoverer’s Award of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (1988), the Gustavus John Esselen Award for Chemistry in the Public Interest (1989), the first Award for the Industrial Application of Science (1990) from the National Academy of Sciences, the Nevada Medal (1992), the Thomson Gold Medal of the International Mass Spectrometry Society (1994), the Prince Mahidol Award (Thailand) in Medicine (1995), the Sovereign Fund Award (1996), the William Procter Prize for Scientific Achievement, Sigma Xi (1998), the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art (1999), the Othmer Gold Medal of the Chemical Heritage Foundation (2000), the Author’s Prize of the German Chemical Society (2001), the Erasmus Medal of the Academia Europaea (2003), the Great Merit Cross of Germany (2003), the Serono Prize in Literature (Rome, 2005), the Lichtenberg Medal of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences (2005), the Great Silver Decoration for Services to the Republic of Austria (2008), and the Edinburgh Medal (2011). In 2005, the Austrian Post Office issued a stamp in his honor.


He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and of its Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as a foreign member of the Royal Society (London),  the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, the Academia Europeae, and the German (Leopoldina), Mexican, Bulgarian, and Brazilian Academies of Sciences. The Royal Society of Chemistry (London) and the American Academy of Pharmaceutical Sciences elected him to honorary membership in 1968. He is the recipient of 32 honorary doctorates: National Univ. of Mexico (1953); Kenyon College (1958); Federal Univ. of Rio de Janeiro (1969); Worcester Polytechnic Institute (1972); Wayne State Univ. (1974); Columbia Univ. (1975); Univ. of Uppsala (1977); Coe College (1978); Univ. of Geneva (1978); Univ. of Ghent (1985); Univ. of Manitoba (1985); Adelphi Univ. (1993); Univ. of South Carolina (1995); Univ. of Wisconsin (1995); Swiss Fed. Inst. Technol.-ETH (1995); Univ. of Maryland-Baltimore County (1997), the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (1998); Univ. of Aberdeen (2000); Polytechnic Univ. (NY) (2001); Cambridge Univ. (2005); Technical Univ. Dortmund (2009), Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, Argentina (2010), Rutgers University (2010), Technical University of Graz (2010), University of Heidelberg (2011), University of Porto (2011), University of Vienna (2012), Medical University of Vienna (2012), University of Applied Arts, Vienna (2013),  Sigmund Freud University, Vienna (2013),  the American University in Bulgaria (2013) and the Goethe University Frankfurt (2013).


Starting in 1986, he has published numerous poems and short stories in literary magazines as well as a collection of short stories, How I beat Coca-Cola and other Tales of One-upmanship; five novels: Cantor's Dilemma, The Bourbaki Gambit, Marx, Deceased, Menachem’s Seed, and NO; three autobiographies, Steroids Made it Possible , The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas’ Horse and Der Schattensammler; a poetry collection, A Diary of Pique; a collection of essays, From the Lab into the World: A Pill for People, Pets, and Bugs; a memoir, This Man’s Pill: Reflections on the 50th birthday of the Pill; and most recently Four Jews on Parnassus—a Conversation: Benjamin, Adorno, Scholem, and Schönberg.


Since 1997, he has focused on play-writing, initially in the genre of “science-in-theatre.”. The first, AN IMMACULATE MISCONCEPTION, premiered at the 1998 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and was subsequently staged in London, San Francisco, New York (Primary Stages), Vienna , Cologne, Munich, Berlin, Sundsvall, Stockholm, Sofia, Geneva, Tokyo, Seoul, Los Angeles, Lisbon, Singapore, Detroit, and Zurich.The play has been translated into 12 languages and also published in book form in English, German, Spanish and Swedish. It was broadcast by BBC World Service in 2000 as “play of the week,” by the West German (WDR) and Swedish Radio in 2001, NPR (USA) in 2004, and Radio Prague in 2006. His second play, OXYGEN, co-authored with Roald Hoffmann, premiered in 2001 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, at the Mainfranken Theater in Würzburg in 2001 - 2002 (as well as in Munich, Leverkusen and Halle), at the Riverside Studios in London in Nov. 2001, and subsequently in Wellington, New Zealand, Korea (Pohang and Seoul), Tokyo, Toronto, Madison, WI, Columbus,OH, Ottawa, Bologna, Sofia, Glasgow, Porto, Medellin, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, San Jose (Costa Rica) as well as many other German and American venues. Both the BBC and the WDR broadcast the play in Dec. 2001 on the centenary of the Nobel Prize—one of that play’s main themes. It has so far been translated into 18 languages. His third play, CALCULUS, dealing with the infamous Newton-Leibniz priority struggle, has already appeared in book form in English, German, and Italian. It opened in San Francisco (2003) and London (2004) with subsequent productions in 2005 in Dublin and Cambridge and in 2011 in Coimbra (Portugal).. A musical version (composed by Werner Schulze) opened in the Zurich Opera Studiobühne in May 2005. A totally rewritten version (with Isabella Gregor), S(P)OILED, premiered in 2009 under the title VERRECHNET in Vienna. His first “non-scientific” play, “EGO,” premiered at the 2003 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and under the title “THREE ON A COUCH” in London (2004) and New York (2008). “EGO” was broadcast in German by the WDR in 2004, followed by its Austrian theatrical premiere in 2005, by a major German tour (Landgraf) in 2006 and 2007, anad by a Hebrew-language premiere in Jerusalem in 2013. The London premiere of his fifth play (“PHALLACY”) with a science vs. art theme occurred in 2005 with a German radio version broadcast in early 2006 by the WDR, the New York premiere in 2006 (Cherry Lane Theatre), and the Portuguese premiere in 2011 in Porto (Teatro do Campo Alegre). His sixth play, “TABOOS” opened in London in 2006 and in German in Graz, with an American premiere in 2008 in New York City (Soho Playhouse) and in Bulgaria. His play, FOREPLAY (, dealing with Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor and Gretel Adorno, was published in book form in English, German, and Spanish in March 2011, while his latest play, Insufficiency, dealing with academic tenure and fashion in science  appeared in his book Chemistry-in-Theatre in 2012 in English and German, and had its theatrical premiere in London  (Riverside Studios, 2012)..


 In addition, he has started on a series of “pedagogic wordplays” to be used in schools in lieu of lectures. The first, “ICSI—Sex in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction” has been published in English, German, Chinese, and Italian and performed in schools in the USA, Germany, Austria, Taiwan, Italy, and Argentina. The second, “NO,” written with Pierre Laszlo was published in 2003 in English, German and French. A docudrama (“FOUR JEWS ON PARNASSUS”) dealing with Benjamin, Adorno, Scholem, and Schönberg, had its first staged dramatic readings at the Walter Benjamin Festival in Berlin in October 2006 and has since been presented at the University of Wisconsin, the Freud Museum (London), Cambridge University as well as in Las Palmas, Spain (Centro Atlantico de Arte Moderno), in various Austrian venues (e.g. Semper Depot, Albertina Museum, Schönberg Center, Univ. f. angew. Kunst), at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, at the Austrian Cultural Forum in Berlin and London, as well as at Stanford University and  the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco


Under the auspices of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, he founded an artists colony near Woodside, California, which provides residencies and studio space for approximately eighty artists per year in the visual arts, literature, choreography, and music. Over 2000 artists have passed through that program since its inception.

Djerassi lives in San Francisco, Vienna, and London.