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A tough problem in steroid chemistry


Refusing to work at night in Wisconsin
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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The reason why I’m mentioning these two people is that Johnson... Bill Johnson... I only had him in a couple of classes, so I knew him as a professor but not really intimately because the intimate relationship is always with your PhD supervisor, who was Wilds. And yet Johnson played perhaps, in some respects, a more important role in my professional life than anyone else. So, I’ll return to him in just a moment. I remember very... my first interview almost with Wilds. By correspondence I’d already asked whether I could work with him so he expected me, I appeared there and so on. And the first question I said... I said, 'Well I plan to finish in two years'. And he, sort of, looked at me. You know, that was not exactly the way you start a conversation with your... with your PhD supervisor. You haven’t started yet and you’re already telling him when you’re getting out. But, of course, in a way most students do think of that, and I don’t know what he said. But he said probably something like, how do you come up with that? I said, 'Well, you know, in the catalogue it says that you have to be... you have to be there for a minimum registered... for a minimum of six semesters and you can now go to school full-time in the summer. So, it’s three semesters a year and two times three is six'... elementary. So, he smiled and said, 'Yeah well that’s true enough. You’re talking about the bureaucratic detail, but then you’ve also got to do a PhD thesis and that has to be successful'. And I said, 'Sure'.

But what was interesting about me that most graduates, particularly nowadays, all work at night and work usually seven days a week. That is certainly in the very macho American... current American graduate system. The elite university... is a sine qua non. If you don’t work every night in the lab and if you think that you’re taking off weekends, maybe half a day on Sunday, you’re out of your mind. You’re not going to last very much longer because the rest... people around you are working at that level. I had refused to work at night because I was married, and I wanted to do other things. I wanted to go to the theatre. I wanted to read and so on. So, I made it a matter of principle that I would not work at night. Now, that was not obligatory at that time in the way in which it is now. I mean you don’t punch a time clock. But the professors nowadays are just as workaholic and are basically slave drivers. Sometimes very sympathetic ones and do not demand more perhaps of their slaves than they themselves do, but that doesn’t change the system and I think it has deteriorated enormously and that we’ve become obsessive in that context. And I use that... use the metaphor of saying totally intellectually monogamous while it is polygamy that one should breed and teach at that time more than anything else. We’re going exactly in the wrong direction and it’s particularly true in the States, but also really in most other developed countries and certainly in the... in the Asian countries that really are pushing so hard, particularly China, Japan and so on. But I didn’t. I just absolutely didn’t, but as a result of that, and that was sort of Darwinian I think you can see this. In order to survive nevertheless in such a system, I had to be very well organised and, I think, in those two years I really became... that’s probably my real strength, that I’m an extremely well organised person. Very disciplined in my time. Don’t waste it at all. And the usual thing in organic chemistry, if you read organic papers... synthetic chemists... they’re cookbook recipes and say something is refluxing overnight or for 24 hours or for 48 hours. Something like this. And if you read journal articles, particularly at that time, no one ever questioned why does one have to reflux overnight. Why do you reflux for 24 hours... 48 hours? What are these... these things? Why not 17 or five or six? Well, the answer is perfectly simple. It’s something to do with your circadian rhythm. You know, you had something going in the afternoon. Well, alright, and you took it off in the morning and it was refluxing. Sometimes you took off for a weekend and it would be for a weekend, but I mean these things... And more so even if you reflux for a couple of hours, people set something up and then they would have coffee, or they schmooze until that’s over and then continue. I never did that. When I had something refluxing I did another experiment during that time. So, I was probably much more productive on a, sort of, unit time basis. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m... I don’t know whether I did actually more work altogether than my colleagues, but I did them in a shorter period of time because I spent less time in the lab. And I think that was very important for my... my life ever since and that I always refused to just say, I’m going to be a total chemist and nothing else, at least intellectually, culturally. And if there’s any strength of mine that’s probably the only one that I think one should emulate rather than dismiss. Although it made me already at that time, it has made me consistently I think in chemistry, particularly in American chemistry, an outsider.

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: University of Wisconsin, William Summer Johnson, Alfred Lawrence Wilds

Duration: 5 minutes, 48 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008