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Steroid chemistry and synthesis


Working on steroids at Ciba
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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They had offered to me and I knew I had a job, and by that time of course I was hired then as a senior PhD chemist. I had my own assistants and... and started working there. That was the positive side. The negative side was that Ciba... that was two of the three Swiss giants. That time there was a fourth one, Geigy. But Ciba, Geigy, Sandoz and Roche were the three or four huge pharmaceutical giants, each of them having branches in the United States of which Ciba and Roche are the two largest ones that were very close together. Ciba in Summit, New Jersey, Roche in Nutley, New Jersey. And... but the real control was Basel. It wasn’t autonomous in the United States. So, it isn’t as it is now where in some respects the research focus in these companies has been American and with Basel going down. At that time, it was totally Swiss operated and decisions were made there. And one of the decisions was that steroid research was done in Basel and we would be doing other research. So, antihistamines, I was continuing in that and... and antispasmodics and... and other drugs. And that in an organisational sense made, of course, sense. That was not unreasonable.  But I, by that time was interested in steroid chemistry. I’d really entered that... that rather successfully at Wisconsin. I’d published in the field, and at Ciba they permitted you to spend 10 or 20% of your research time on your own projects, and I did that with steroids. Not... they didn’t discourage it. They didn’t encourage it either. I mean they said, you could do that during that time. So, I was continuing to publish in steroid chemistry while I was at Ciba as well as in some other things. But I was able to do this as Carl Djerassi rather than as Carl Djerassi, the Ciba research chemist, and I didn’t really get any brownie points, you might say, within the Ciba structure for this. The brownie points that you would get would be for what did you do in the area that was assigned to you... in the therapeutic area, which was antihistamines and antispasmodics in my own case.

And so I worked there then for four years. I was one year earlier and then four years from ‘45 to ’49. But ’48 was an explosive year. It was really a bombshell in... in medical research and in steroid research. One of the great years in chemistry of the last century, and that was the discovery of the beneficial effect... First of all the structure but then the beneficial effects of cortisone, and that... that could be an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. And the first developments by Hench at the Mayo clinic... the first clinical experiments showed arthritics who after getting injections of cortisone would dance a few days later. It was very dramatic, and everyone thought this is a real wonder drug and it would be an unbelievably remunerative one for the pharmaceutical industry. But it was a very complex chemical structure and three people won the Nobel prize that following year for that. Hench, a clinician, but first of all Reichstein, the Swiss who did the... who did the initial chemical work and then Kendall at the Mayo clinic and Hench. The three of them shared it. Deservedly so I’d say. It’s an extremely important observation, and everybody’s grandmother in organic chemistry, certainly steroid chemistry, then tried to work on... on the synthesis of cortisone.

Now, one chemist, a rather young one, I would think he’s probably just a few years older than I... he’s dead now... Lewis Sarett worked first at the Mayo clinic with Kendall and then went to Merck... almost alone, accomplished the first synthesis of cortisone from bile acids.

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: Ciba, Geigy, Sandoz, Roche, Cortisone, steroids, Mayo Clinic, Tadeus Reichstein, Philip Showalter Hench, Edward Calvin Kendall, Lewis Hastings Sarett

Duration: 4 minutes, 37 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008