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Can science work in Africa?


My time as chairman of BOSTID
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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That’s basically the pill part in this, but then you wonder what does Pygmy Chimps have to do with it? Well, in some respects they have nothing to do with it, and in some respects they have a great deal to do with this. My work in Mexico really taught me, first of all the unbelievable hurdles that people in the southern world have in contemporary science, because all dialogue, all travel, all communication in science is East, West, or was at that time, totally East, West. It was Europe and the United States, and to a certain extent Japan, and the driblets in the south were really only driblets, and there would be Australia, and in chemistry to a certain extent, maybe a little bit, Australia and New Zealand, and in chemistry a little bit actually of it in South Africa, in the pre, sort of, in the- not Colonial times, but you know, the, the white South Africa, which after all there are British modelled universities there, but except for this it was all north south, period- ah, East, West. So that difficulty, and the overt and inadvertent discrimination against people from third world countries, I became quite sensitive to this, even though I was not one of them, but I worked there, and I, I basically felt like a Mexican, and talking about the Gringos, and the Yankees, and how they really discriminated against us, and I think that esprit de coeur, then really belaboured the Mexican aspect, or belaboured the Mexican aspect of Syntex very much with- even though it was a very international group there, but there were quite a number of Mexican chemists, so that really got them to really work on the thing as hard, and I think as enthusiastically as they did. So that really taught me a lesson, and when I went back to the States as an academic, I maintained some pretty intimate relations with the University of Mexico, the National University of Mexico, with students there, and I had some post docs there, and then developed it as a model for research colllaboration in Brazil and- under Rockefeller foundation auspices, for 20 years, I had a research group in Sao Paulo and Rio with Brazilians who then worked there with post docs of mine, on Brazilian projects and so on. I became very much interested in North South relations. And in the 1960s, by which time I was already a member of the National Academy of Sciences, I became a member of what is called the Latin America Science Board of the National Academy, which dealt with relations, scientific relations between the United States and Latin America. I, of course, was appointed to it because I spoke Spanish and that I had perhaps more experience about Latin America than many others, because I’d lived there. And I eventually became the Chairman of an overall board, called the Board of Science and Technology for International Development, a very long term, a very long word. The acronym was BOSTID. And that, dealt with- it’s now 1960s, middle to late 1960s, with bilateral relations between America and third world countries. That time we really were interested in this and AID, the Agent for International Development gave about 16 million dollars, which was a fair amount of money, to the National Academy, to develop programs, bilateral ones not multilateral ones, which probably would have been better, but bilateral ones with individual countries in Latin American, Africa and Asia. I was not only the Chairman, the overall Chairman of this, but I was involved in many, as a working member, in many of the individual ones and this included countries, taking a few which participated in workshops and travels, first of all, of course, Mex- First of all, of course, Brazil. Mexico was not one because it was not an AID country; it had to be a country supported by the Agency for International Development. Mexico never was. But it was Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia, Tanzania, Columbia, Kenya, Egypt, well here are just some countries where I was involved. There were many others, Bangladesh, Pakistan etc, etc.

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: Mexico, Europe, United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Syntex, National Academy of Sciences, Latin America Science Board of the National Academy, Board of Science and Technology for International Development, Brazil, Agent for International Development

Duration: 4 minutes, 32 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008