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Meeting my second wife and divorce from my first wife

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My first marriage
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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I was married at an ungodly age, I mean one that people simply would not believe, because I looked like a reasonably intelligent person and one who was- you know, had a good education and generally the educational process, the active student educational process, doesn’t lend itself very much to marriage. But I was married at nineteen and a half. Now that’s really, right now, I would say is a child, but then you forget that was in the early 1940s, which is very different from what it would be now, even with what the sexual mores were like. I mean, I find it rather amusing, but when I got married, I was a virgin. Well, you know, that’s even statistically hardly possible these days with a nineteen and a half year young man. It wouldn't be with me if I lived all over again, but I was. That may even have had something to do with it, but I was also convinced that I was really an adult. And in some respects I was, because I’d graduated already from college. And because I didn’t have any money, I had to go out to work. I couldn’t afford to go to graduate school, so I was- had been working for a year as research chemist in a large pharmaceutical company, CIBA, which is now Novartis- in New Jersey. It’s a Swiss company and its American headquarters are in New Jersey. So I was already a chemist and I’d even made a very important discovery, one of the first anti-histamines, Pyribenzamine, my first publication, my first patent. So that’s pretty heady stuff for a nineteen year old one, who never really thought, you know, I’m really the cat’s meow. And then I decided I would go to graduate school. I got a very good fellowship at the University of Wisconsin, and therefore, you know, I could get married. I got married to a woman who was four years older than I. In fact, the interesting thing is my first two wives were four and six or seven years older than I was. In fact, any other woman with whom I was romantically involved in one way or another, until my early to middle thirties, were always older than I, and then it all dramatically changed from then on, which is rather typical of the intending male climacteric, but that was the case. And she was a very kind and nice and easy to live with woman. Her name was Virginia Jeremiah, and she came from Ohio, and I’d met her initially on a blind date when I was an undergraduate. I was an undergraduate in Ohio at Kenyon College, and she went to a nearby college, Otterbein, and we met then that way. So I married her in her home town of Dayton, Ohio, where I just went for the marriage and then our wedding night, you might say, was spent in a Pullman Car from Dayton to Madison, Wisconsin, via Chicago. Not very romantic, but charming. And she was a typical- she played the typical female role at that time of the wives of graduate students. Many more graduate students were married at that time than they would be now for various reasons, to support their husbands. It was always that the students were all male, the medical students were male, their wives were the nurses who put them through that, and then frequently afterwards, they were ditched for a newer different model. I mean, this is the sort of thing which is certainly neither appropriate now, nor practised as much as it was at that time. And I’m not saying this at all proudly. I say it as a collective male mea culpa of the culture of that time, but it was a fact. And in that case my wife didn’t feel exploited and I didn’t think at that time that it was exploiting her. And she was a school teacher, high school teacher, and I was a graduate student, and it was- we both enjoyed that graduate work, which was short and very compressed. It was only two and a half years, and then I got my PhD at the University of Wisconsin. And then we moved back to New Jersey and I went back to the same company, and I worked there for another four years. We had no children because we didn’t want to have any children. We practised birth control. That, of course, was before the pill. That was again the traditional method of birth control, because birth control obviously will come up in what I’ll have to say, so I might as well talk about it even at this stage. So what was the traditional relationship in an essentially monogamous marriage, namely the wife practised it with a diaphragm, rather than the man using a condom. Not that people didn’t use condoms, but obviously it was more enjoyable in a way, you might say, for both parties. But again, the burden of contraception was on the woman, and it’s interesting that the invention with which I had something to do with, the contraceptive pill- perhaps the greatest disadvantage of the pill with many of the other advantages, social, cultural, hedonistic, that it had, the greatest disadvantage is that it again put, and to a much greater extent, the burden of contraception again right back on the woman. We have no male pill to take that place. And the pill is even more convenient for the pleasure of sexual intercourse than condoms. And there isn’t any other alternative the man has for a chance of reversible birth control.

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: Novartis, New Jersey, University of Wisconsin, Pyribenzamine, Ohio, Kenyon College, Virginia Jeremiah

Duration: 6 minutes, 18 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008