Creator of pill on science, sex - and anniversaries

· Chemist pooh-poohs 50th birthday celebrations
· Reports of wonder drug also come in for criticism

Patrick Barkham
Monday April 3, 2006
The Guardian

The "mother" of the contraceptive pill is exercised about birthdays. "There was the chemical birthday of the pill in 1951 and the public birthday of the pill in 1960. As far as I'm concerned there is only one birthday. Nothing can happen until the pill is born," says Carl Djerassi firmly. "I'm perfectly happy to celebrate but I want to know what I'm celebrating."

Scientists last week marked the 50th anniversary of the first large-scale field trials of the pill by announcing they are working on a new generation of pills with potentially huge health benefits. Mr Djerassi, 82, the chemist who in 1951 led a team to create a man-made version of the natural contraceptive hormone progesterone, is not impressed. A remarkably vigorous polymath who fled Nazi Germany for America, Mr Djerassi has shaped the modern world his life spans. He has made his fortune, collected art, turned to philanthropy and written fiction and poems. He now considers himself a playwright, although he still travels the world lecturing on the philosophy of science and his current preoccupation: love and sex in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Firstly, the anniversary is wrong. He stabs a finger at the references: Tyler ET (1955), a paper first presented in 1954. The 50th anniversary refers to a study by the biologist Gregory Pincus in 1956. "I'm a chemist so I pooh-pooh this. I always say the chemist is the mother of the pill and Pincus is the father of the pill. Nothing gets born without a mother."

What really riles Mr Djerassi is the reporting of research into the "new generation" of pills. Breathless stories suggested scientists are five years away from releasing a drug based on a compound called mifepristone, or RU486 - claimed to reduce breast cancer, thrombosis and heart disease. "It pisses me off in many different ways. I don't know whether the guilty persons are the media or naive scientists. I don't think they are malicious or deliberately disingenuous but they have not the vaguest idea of the realities of what it takes to introduce a pill on to the market." To suggest it is five years away is "ludicrous".

Mr Djerassi sold his own patent for a dollar but still emerged a multimillionaire thanks to shares in his tiny company - "one of the greatest Wall Street success stories of all times," he says. Born in Austria, the son of two Jewish physicians, he escaped the Nazis before the war and studied chemistry in the US. Working for Syntex in Mexico City, he led his team to produce a new compound on October 15 1951: a synthetic type of progesterone that, crucially, could be taken orally. The "pill" was found to prevent pregnancy. "That's what I mean by birthday," he says.

As academic papers nimbly plucked from his files show, Mr Djerassi has always referenced Pincus, whose contribution "absolutely must not be denied". The biologist, however, never extended the courtesy of reaching outside his academic discipline to cite the chemist. "Pincus never mentioned any chemist. You'd think he bought it [the compound] in a drugstore."

It is a trait shared by many academics who fail to talk across disciplines. Mr Djerassi gave a lecture in Germany recently: in praise of polygamy. "I was speaking about intellectual polygamy. It is a great pity that what we are practising now is intellectual monogamy. We are training people to become deeper and deeper specialists in narrower and narrower disciplines." Mr Djerassi accepts he has "an enormous advantage" in straddling science and art. His conversion from chemist to author - of "science in fiction" - was shaped, famously, when he wrote poems in response to his partner, Diane Middlebrook, a professor of English literature, telling him she was leaving. (They got back together.)

His latest play, Taboos, which finished its first run at the New End Theatre in Hampstead yesterday, is his sixth in nine years. Through the lives of five Americans, it tells a complex story of sex and reproduction. "I think the leitmotif for the last 50 years of last century was contraception. The leitmotif of the next 50 years will be conception. It's two sides of the coin: on one side is sex without reproductive consequences, which was the pill, and reproduction without sex, which was a British invention."

He created his compound more than 50 years ago. Mr Djerassi is now more interested in "the extremely complicated problem" of what happens when pills reach society. "That's why I decided to write plays. I wanted to smuggle these ideas into the minds of people who would not read an article ... or don't even think about the problems."

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