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Problems with my knee: going back to Mexico

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Getting into academia: moving to Wayne State University
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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Everyone had heard by that time of Syntex because one of the conditions that I’d mentioned for my accepting the job was that they would permit unrestricted publication policy because I wanted to get into academia, and I knew the only way you could do that is to establish your name in the literature. After all that’s how Syntex had heard of me. From the publications I’d published, not any other way. And they agreed to that with the understanding of course, which I also knew, we had to also patent. We patented very quickly and then immediately published, and that changed in many respects the climate of the pharmaceutical industry at that time because we pushed some of the really others to also publish long before they wanted to publish. They wanted to delay it because there was always the question, will Syntex be the first in beating them to the draw? And that had a very important effect, and then it had a second effect. Syntex was the first company to really establish post doctorate fellowships. That came a little bit later than the 1950s and I’ll get back to it in a moment because again it shows how that little company changed a number of things really world-wide although people don’t really appreciate this now, or maybe they didn’t. Well, at that time they did. So these were two of the really important discoveries we made and I must have published during those two years 15- I came in late 1949. By ’50, ’51 probably I had 60 or so papers out of Mexico City. You know, from a place where there were no scientific publications before and this was a flood of papers in the most prestigious scientific journals. And that really had quite an impact, and of course created much more visibility for me than it would have otherwise because no one expected Mexico. You know, you expected we were in Harvard, but not there. Well, I was really out to get an academic job and I’d been unable to get it before, and on the basis of that was offered one in what was at that time a fairly miserable university. But it was nevertheless an American university and that was Wayne University in Detroit, which then a few years later became Wayne State University, the third big university in Michigan. The University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State. So in 1952 after two, two years and a couple of months with a new wife, a new baby I left sunny beautiful Mexico City and ended up in filthy, dirty, cold, muddy Detroit in January of 1952. And again people who first thought I was mad to have to gone to Mexico City now thought I was mad to leave Mexico City and go to Detroit. I was living in a lovely house. I was getting a good salary. Everything seemed to be okay and then I moved to university where I have to get grants and everything else. But again it turned out to be the wisest move that I could have made just as the reverse one because I knew I had to get this academic urge out of my system. I’d either discover that it’s the wrong thing to do or to start it as soon as- I was 30 years old by then and they of course did not- I didn’t start on the bottom of the ladder. They offered me an associate professorship with the understanding that if it works out within a year I would get a full professorship, and of course it worked smashingly well. So I was within a year a professor in American university, and even though Wayne was very, very poorly housed in third rate buildings in the middle of Detroit the university was extremely supportive and had a wonderful library, which is- A chemical library, which is very important, and was willing to spend money on instruments, which is what you need. And what is much more important is the instruments than the fancy buildings. Now, what is even more important is of course that you have good people. But that I demonstrated already in Mexico City where no one thought that you’d get people there. Then with good people you can do important things wherever you are. And I really collected very quickly a first class group of graduate students at, at Detroit, and I suspected and turned out to be completely right that if you do something significant in chemistry in an institution like that it draws much more attention than if it were in a first class institution. That happened to me all over again at Wayne. So I was there then and commuted to Mexico City every couple of months. I remained a very intimate consultant to the company. I left on very good terms. They understood that I wanted to go to academia. So I maintained that Mexican connection.

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: Syntex, Mexico City, Detroit, Wayne State University

Duration: 5 minutes, 11 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008