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Getting a job at Ciba working on antihistamines


Transferring to Kenyon College, Ohio
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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At Tarkio I spent one semester, it was the second semester. In other words, since I started in January at Newark Junior College I went there for one year. So, in January the following year, that was by that time January 1941, I then went to Tarkio for one semester and then came the summer... summer break and I went to visit my mother who was working in upstate New York a thousand miles away or so. A very long bus ride. On the way, taking the bus from Missouri through the Midwest to New York and then upstate New York it went through Ohio and I decided to visit Kenyon College. The place that I really knew nothing about but had pretty pictures and so on. That I would’ve... that I’d applied for but was not eligible for. And, actually, I don’t know why. I probably have copies of that somewhere. I wrote them and said, 'Could I visit the college'... the person with whom I’d been corresponding about this scholarship and which had made me ineligible after having gone to Tarkio. And they said, 'Come'. And I went there and they offered me a room and board and tuition scholarship quite separately. I don’t know why they were impressed or why they did this. But in any event, I accepted on the spot and never went back to Tarkio College.

Now, interestingly enough, Kenyon is also a church... and particularly was then very much a church affiliated school. Even had a seminary, but that was high Episcopalian rather than the sort of much more fundamentalist Presbyterian in... in the deep Midwest. A very sophisticated one. A very old college for America. It was the oldest men’s... it was an all men’s college... west of the Allegenies. Very British. The architecture was completely Oxbridge. The name Kenyon came after Lord Kenyon, some Englishman who gave them some money or something like that. And a beautiful college. The architecture was superb. I mean if you walk around, you'd think you are at either Oxford or Cambridge, one of the older colleges... in one of the older colleges. And so that’s where I then ended up in the fall of 1941. And because it was such an expedited thing you could then go also in the summer and I took a lot of extra courses. I finished the next two years of college in about a year and a summer. So, by 1942, at the end of the summer, I already was graduated from college and Kenyon was a very good school although very small. It had only 300 students but had a superb English department. It was already one of the famous English departments. People like Robert Lowell, I mean really important poets... writers went there. It had an English department of ten faculty members in a college for 300 where men, whereas it had only two chemistry professors. One in organic chemistry and one in physical chemistry, and yet they were absolutely first class. Not only first-class teachers, but actually did a little bit of research with their students. And this was almost like a tutorial because the advanced chemistry course I took had maybe four or five students, something like that, and that was first class. And by that time, even though I was still a premed, I’d already taken on quite a bit of chemistry, had to, and at Kenyon I think I became a chemist because that’s when I did my first research. I still remember the quantum yield of ethyl iodide, but it was a physical chemical topic and it... it really turned me on. So, I graduated from Kenyon.

What was also interesting is that there were a lot of wealthy students. It was full of fraternities. I didn’t belong to any fraternity and, of course, I didn’t have any money. This was a place where many students even had their own cars. There were a couple who had private planes, which was just almost unheard of, and the literary ones were very sophisticated. I mean there are well known graduates from Kenyon... literary ones. Robie Macauley, EL Doctorow... the very famous novelist, for instance. James Wright, the poet, I know that I mentioned already. Robert Lowell, Paul Newman, the actor... these were all people who went to Kenyon. Not quite my time. They were... well, some of them of course my time, even slightly before. But Paul Newman, I think, Doctorow a few years later. But it was a first-class place. It had very sophisticated professors and I had a first-class education. No question whatsoever.

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: Tarkio College, Kenyon College, Robie Mayhew Macauley, Edgar Lawrence Doctorow, Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV, James Arlington Wright, Paul Leonard Newman

Duration: 5 minutes, 18 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008