|NO FORMULA: His lab closed, the chemist
experiments with words.
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 millenniums
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 sourcea man the London Times deemed known
for many things, but not for his modestyreaders had to know
it would not remain unwritten.
Djerassis latest outpouring, This Mans 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
Middlebrook dissuaded Djerassi from trying to publish Middles.
But by 1989, his first novel, Cantors 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 lifes
story, which Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould calls the
very best of scientific autobiography. Naturally, Djerassis
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 Mans
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 controversyand make some readers cheeris
Djerassis 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. Heres
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 womans bedroom, which
can neither be bombed nor picketed.
The more personal passages suffer at times from Djerassis 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
triumphsgame, set and match. But the contest is endearingly entertaining:
you know Djerassi is trying to rein himself in but, finally, just cant.
And too much modesty in a man of such varied accomplishments would sound
Still, the story of Djerassis softening from workaholic
scientist and industrialist to social-sciences teacher and littérateur
needs no flourishes to inspire a readers 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 Mans Pill certain of anything,
its 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
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