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Discovering that progesterone is not orally active


The history of the pill
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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I think what I’d like to do is end with how I started, namely with this autobiography, and with this title, and say... make a few remarks about all three items. In a way, the pill, I’ve spoken the least about this, although in the image of some people, and perhaps the reason why you want to film me, you associate me with that development, and of course, by my not mentioning it to any extent just now doesn’t mean that I think it is insignificant, it’s just that I’ve spoken so often about this that somehow I’d like to hear other things, which I consider just as important, or maybe more important for myself, for my own personal life, than the record. But it’s worthwhile, I think, to talk about it briefly, since I showed you, particularly the chemical background, and since virtually all the people who were involved with the pill are dead, which includes even the very young chemist Luis Miramontes, who was sort of, 20, 21, who worked in my lab, and let’s say, did the actual final experiment, who just died recently, maybe a year or two ago, at age... I forgot... 77, 78, or something like that.

I’ve often been referred to... some people in newspapers and so on, for the sake of shorthand, as the father of the pill... words that I always object to, not only because it’s historically inaccurate, but what is much more important, because I consider it meaningless. As someone who is very much involved, right now in particular, and virtually all my writing, even my last play Taboos is involved with conception, with birth, rather than with prevention of birth. That’s not an important point, but my point is that anything that gets born needs more than one person. It’s not parthenogenesis, it usually involves a mother and a father, and people always have this phallocentric tendency of speaking about the father of the invention, the father of the country, the father of this, but who’s the mother in this? You couldn’t have a baby without a mother. In fact, if you think about it, the egg, and then the maternal environment, and I’m still talking about the uterine environment, and the nourishment, and so on, it’s much more important than a single puny sperm, which we contribute in the beginning and then we disappear. And in most species the male hasn’t got the foggiest idea who his offspring are. I mean fish don’t know who is their baby daughter, or their baby son, so to speak, you have to get to relatively few species, and of course man, and even in man, many fathers don’t know or care who their child is. You wouldn’t find this to be the case of the mother, who couldn’t, whether she wanted it or not, couldn’t ignore it. So I really, when my publisher originally wanted to do something like, about the father of the pill, and I said, forget about it, and came up with a much more complex, and I think a much more meaningful title, The Pill, Pygmy Chimps and Degas' Horse, it has a certain alliteration also. But in German, when the German biography came out, and that you see is thicker, because it even has a couple of more chapters, which English publishers didn’t want to publish, and the German one did, also because the German language is longer. Well, in German this would be a so much longer title. Just pygmy chimps, which is short, but it’s in German, Pygmäe Schimpansen, which sounds horrible, or Degas Horse is Das Pferd von Degas. So the German publisher wanted to call it Der Vater der Pille, and I said no, but you can call it Die Mutter der Pille, the mother of the pill, and then of course he liked it, because it sounds cutesy, and of course if I just meant it that way it’s also corny and kitschy, but there was no question that journalists, and so on, picked it up, but I meant it seriously, and I think I should really talk about it, because of that context.

Namely a chemist, not just Carl Djerassi. The chemist is invariably the mother of a medicinal drug, or a medicinal drug invention, and it’s the biologist who’s the father, and it’s a clinician who is the midwife, and you need all three of them, you know, at the very, at the very least. Now, I mean of course, not just the three individuals, but the three disciplines. Nothing can happen until the chemical has first been conceived in the chemist’s mind and head, drawn on paper, the architect, and then still nothing can happen until the chemist builder has made it. Only then can the biologist come and do something in the building, or with the building, and that something are usually the animal experiments, because he can’t experiment right away with humans, and then after that has been done, and it’s been shown that the building, so to speak, is habitable, then will come the rest of the people, and in that case it will be a clinician who will really demonstrate the clinical applicability. And usually the chemical role is either ignored out of ignorance but sometimes deliberately, particularly by the clinicians, who know nothing about the chemistry, and are the most distant from the origin, and also people then forget it, because they of course get it from the clinician, and think that’s where it started. But that’s where it ended, not where it began.

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: Taboos, Die Mutter der Pille, The pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse, Luis Ernesto Miramontes Cárdenas

Duration: 5 minutes, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008