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Working on making the first oral contraceptive


The race to synthesise cortisone
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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And so we entered this race for cortisone, which really no one knew that we were even players in this field. And when I say a race it was very atypical. It really was that, and to make a long story short we won that race. Now, that is, in many respects, a meaning... meaningless statement because what does that mean? And yet that’s the terminology we use in science all the time, particularly in synthetic chemistry. Who is first? Now, the rest of the world really couldn’t care less because why should any patient care who was the first to make cortisone. They’re interested in getting cortisone. They’re interested in getting it the cheapest way. So, therefore, they want to have the cheapest synthesis. That does not necessarily mean the first synthesis, but for scientists it was the first. And we were first by a few weeks. So that’s all. So that makes really no difference and, in fact, there were four communications to the Editor published in one issue, the August 1951 issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the most prestigious chemical journal... of two communications from Harvard, one from Merck, and one from Mexico City from a place that really very few people had heard of before. But, of course, you have the submission dates there and ours was the earliest one, and that put us on the map.

There were newspaper articles and pictures in Life magazine.  And this is the picture they actually showed, which is a very funny and amusing one here because you can see us right here. So there we’re sitting, the team, around a table mesmerised by this big root in the middle, which is really this dioscorea root from which we prepared diosgenin. And then George Rosenkranz was sitting there in the middle. These are two people... well, who have no lab jackets. I’m there and George Rosenkranz is here, and he holds a little vial. In there presumably there was supposed to be cortisone. Of course, we... we’d made a few milligrams so this was sugar that was in there. This was for Life magazine, but it really... it put Syntex on the map.

We did a lot of other work as well, but this was really actually quite sensational because it was done in a rather short period of time. You know, in not quite a year, which for this sort of thing was quite an accomplishment.

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: Journal of the American Chemical Society, Life Magazine, Dioscorea, Dosgenin, George Rosenkranz

Duration: 2 minutes, 20 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008