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Cultural and scientific life in Wisconsin

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Life at Wisconsin University
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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What was so attractive about the Wisconsin situation is that the vast majority of the graduate students, vast majority in chemistry in the United States, were self-supporting. There were very few people who would pay their own tuition and so on but they all had to do it through teaching assistantships, which meant that you were a part-time student. You had to roughly at half-time or quarter-time be a teaching assistant, which was fairly brutal. It was the lowest form. You know, grading things, hanging around in the lab, very time consuming. I had a research fellowship. Very few universities have that, but Wisconsin did. They already had at that time something called the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. Because they were probably the first American university– and the reason I’m mentioning all this is because of the recurring theme later on in my own life, particularly when I went to Stanford– the first one who started to exploit inventions by university professors in an economic way through patents, royalties and so on. And the initial first great deal of money that was raised at, at Wisconsin at that time was the Steenbock, Harry Steenbock invention. He was professor of biochemistry who had done work on, on fortifying milk vitamin D and so on, and of course Wisconsin being a dairy state they really cashed in on this. And they used all of that money basically to support research at Wisconsin and have a series of research fellowships, which were full-time research fellowships which were really quite wonderful, and I got one of these. A number of other inventions helped- get warfarin, the first really significant anticoagulant still used to this day was invented by Karl Paul Link who was my professor of biochemistry then. A very charismatic figure and that raised millions and millions, and created an enormous amount of support for research at Wisconsin. So these two schools, Kenyon and Wisconsin, played a very important role in my life and I’ve felt always very grateful to them, including the context of actually doing something financially for these places. Some form of appreciation when I myself became more affluent, obviously not at that time. So I went to Wisconsin. On the way to Wisconsin I mentioned already earlier I decided to get married. And through that fellowship to the University of Wisconsin, the supplementary grant from Ciba, my wife’s income as a high school teacher meant that we led a quite normal life. I’m not suggesting that it was even the vaguest affluence. You know, we had no car or anything like this but we lived in pleasant digs. It was not in a room. We had a small apartment.

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: Stanford, University of Wisconsin, Kenyon College, Ciba, Harry Steenbock

Duration: 3 minutes, 9 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008