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The Pill, Pygmy Chimps and Degas' Horse


The difference between my three autobiographies
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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Why have I written three autobiographies? I really ought to start with them. Because related to whatever this interview is going to be, or end up as, the first one, chronologically, was written in '89 or '90 at a request of the American Chemical Society that had a series of autobiographies that were more or less commissioned of organic chemists, and that of course is what most people would call me if they just want to categorise me. I would not call myself as what other people would. And that I show you here, is called, Steroids Made It Possible, and even as... and even they’re all stylised in that every one of them... there are 22 volumes of 22 autobiographies. They always have the silhouette of that particular person in there, so that itself is very unusual. If you look, for instance, at the German translation of another autobiography which is completely different, that is of course really sort of a made up thing with ceramic hands, or if you turn it around... or the spine, and you see me as a pregnant man. Now that tells you an awful lot. There’s something very different. Or then you look at the typical autobiography... the artistic autobiography. This is my real autobiography. This is the German version of it, but there you see with the... you know, it’s supposedly looking dramatic or I don’t know what you want to call it, quizzical or imperious, etc, etc. And then... and that’s more interesting, so that was written in 1990 and is addressed to chemists only. And this is not going to be the dial... the monologue that you’ll get from me, even though you probably would like it. You’re not going to get it from me, because I’ve moved beyond this. I’ve only spent 50 years in that field and I’m only 80 now, so I’ve got at least another 10, 15 years to go and they will be very busy ones, and they’re not going to be in chemistry. And that’s what interests me now.

So I then brought it up to date. So this was then written a couple of years later and it covers my life, and I was then in my early 60s, and that’s really where you might say, there’s still the research through my 70s, but that really covers the important scientific part of my life. So the other one is interesting in size. You see, it’s much smaller. And yet, to that extent, actually more distilled and more concentrated. It’s interesting... I digress right away because my literary writing style is poetry. The German word for poetry is Dichter and you wonder where this comes from, and Dichter is to concentrate and to, you know, condense and you can see right here the last ten years of my life and the image, of course, was picked by the publisher, but you can see now the focus just on the eye. And I think this is not a bad metaphor because by now you don’t even know what the rest of the person looks like. And you either find that gaze engaging or threatening or whatever you want to call that, but you now have to look at the personality of the person. And I think that’s an interesting range. The impersonal silhouette tells you nothing about the person, typical scientific autobiography or biography, the facts but not really the person behind it. And image... I mean, this is a... this you can interpret it in many different ways, whatever that means. These hands and the pregnant man which I think is particularly relevant in my scientific work and my transition to the non-scientific area. And then these over here.

Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was best known for his work on the synthesis of the steroid cortisone and then of a progesterone derivative that was the basis of the first contraceptive pill. He wrote a number of books, plays and poems, in the process inventing a new genre, 'science-in-fiction', illustrated by the novel 'Cantor's Dilemma' which explores ethics in science.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Tags: American Chemical Society, Steroids Made It Possible

Duration: 4 minutes, 13 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008