00:00:00DJERASSI: I was born in Vienna, but only accidentally. My parents were both
physicians. My mother was Viennese, and my father was Bulgarian. They met in
medical school in Vienna in 1923, after World War I. My mother was a typical
central European who, perhaps with some justification, saw Bulgaria next to
Albania as really the "pits" of Europe, moving back a couple of centuries in
00:01:00terms of development. She never liked it in Bulgaria.
My parents were divorced fairly early, when I was six years old. When she was
pregnant, she felt that medically the child could only be born in Vienna. At
that time it had one of the best medical schools in Europe, and that was where
the hospital was. So, when she was seven months pregnant, she came to Vienna to
have me there. I was born in Vienna because of that, and when I was two months
old, I went back again to Bulgaria to spend roughly the first five and one-half
years of my life.
THACKRAY: In a small town?
DJERASSI: No in Sofia, the capital. But my mother never learned Bulgarian, so we
spoke German at home. German was my first language. I'm probably one of the few
persons who has forgotten one language twice! When I learned Bulgarian I learned
it as a second language. When I was about six years old, and it was time to go
00:02:00to school, my mother felt strongly that I should go to school in Vienna instead
of Sofia and my father concurred.
Around that time my parents divorced, and I am one of these very unusual cases
who literally did not know my parents were divorced. They kept it from me until
I was thirteen, which is one of the most extraordinary phenomena; I'm still sort
of snickering about this. They were probably even prompted by social
embarrassment, thinking that this would be traumatic for the child. But, you
see, it actually worked. You may ask in retrospect how can you keep that from
someone? It worked rationally because they were very civil about it. It was not
that this was a bitter relationship; it was just crystal clear that my mother
couldn't stand Bulgaria. The official reason was that professionally it was very
difficult for her to practice medicine. She eventually practiced dentistry. (At
that time in Vienna dentistry was a medical specialty, so you did not train to
become a dentist. You became a specialist in dentistry after getting the M.D.)
My father was a dermatologist and venereal disease specialist. She felt,
00:03:00correctly so, that her lack of Bulgarian wouldn't make it the place to practice.
Professionally she felt that she should go back to Vienna and it would be much
better for me educationally. There she was probably also right. My maternal
grandmother lived in Vienna and we lived with her.
I spent my summers in Bulgaria and my school years in Vienna. My father visited
us frequently in Vienna, so it seemed to a child a perfectly reasonable and
plausible arrangement. I spent the first five to six years of my life in
Bulgaria, then went to Vienna and promptly forgot the baby Bulgarian that I
learned. I went to a typical Austrian, Central European school with a rigorous
curriculum, meaning that I went to a Realgymnasium after the fourth year. It was
not completely classical, but it was not a technical education either. I learned
a lot of Latin, but not Greek. For instance, I started Latin in the fifth grade.
00:04:00I think it was a typical Viennese education which in retrospect was first class,
particularly in a cultural context. I only recognize now what an impact it had
on me in the context of literature, art, and so on. These are things that have
an enormous interest for me. (If you arrived recently, you may have read in the
newspaper the day before yesterday that people broke into the San Francisco
Museum of Modern Art and stole four Klees -- three of which were mine. I lent
them an entire Klee collection. Fortunately they recovered the stolen Klees. But
this is just a digression.) So when people ask me, "Are you Viennese or
Bulgarian?" I always say to them, "I'm neither." When I was in Vienna people
considered me half-Bulgarian, which was a wild country. Obviously, when I was in
Bulgaria I was considered Viennese, with some justification, because I didn't
speak any Bulgarian. Of course, culturally, and in many other contexts, I was
totally Viennese, and not Bulgarian.
00:05:00That proceeded until Hitler days, the Anschluss in Vienna. I had a dual
passport, both Bulgarian and Austrian citizenship. I was born in Vienna and
traveled with an Austrian passport. But in Bulgaria your citizenship is
considered that of your father, so I could also use a Bulgarian passport. I
immediately got that, and left half a year after Hitler moved in. My mother, who
was totally Viennese, then pro forma remarried my father to get a Bulgarian
passport and get out of Austria. Then, she immediately applied for an American
immigration visa for herself and me.
This is important in terms of the family circumstances, because immigration to
the States at that time was based on the quota system, and the quota system was
00:06:00based on where you were born, not on your citizenship. The Bulgarian quota was
an impossible one, something like a hundred people a year. But the Austrian
quota was twenty or thirty thousand a year. There were a lot of Austrians,
particularly Jews, who tried to get out, but still it was a quota where maybe
you had to wait for one or two years, while in the context of Bulgaria, you
might have had to wait for ten years. My father, who was born in Bulgaria, was
not interested, and in fact did not apply. But, my mother had applied, and our
visa application was in the mill.
In between the ages of six and fourteen and a half, I used to spend my summers
in Bulgaria. My father had a fairly large family in terms of four brothers and
one sister. It was a very large extended, Balkanese family, with lots of
cousins, and I felt very comfortable with them. I gradually learned Bulgarian
00:07:00again, but it was really fairly crummy conversational Bulgarian. I started to
learn the language over again, but not very well because it was only in the
summers. (Incidentally, while I was in Vienna, I met Alfred Bader, who also
lived in Vienna at that time and went to school there.) I really had no
particular scientific education, because my schooling in Vienna only went up to
the eighth grade.
In the beginning of the freshman year of high school, we had one course in
chemistry. I remember one thing about the course that was hilarious. The man who
taught it pretended that he knew English quite well. I had started to take
private lessons at home with a woman, not because of any immigration
consideration (it was before then), but because my mother felt it was needed.
This man impressed me very much about really knowing something about English
pronunciation. He kept talking about "She-kay-go, Illin-wah" [Chicago,
00:08:00Illinois]. To this day I can remember "She- kay-go, Illin-wah". [laughter] Some
of it was in a chemistry context, but I've forgotten why it was "She-kay-go,
Illin-wah". When I moved to Detroit I remember there were so many French-type
words that were also pronounced in English, like saying "Champs-de-lizee" for
Champs d'Elysees, and Illinois, which is "Illin-wah" and stuff like that.
I had very little practical training in chemistry while I was in Vienna. I
always assumed I would be a physician. My parents were physicians, and many of
their friends, on both sides of the family, were physicians, so I always assumed
that I'd go into medicine. In a Viennese context, you don't plan for this until
you've graduated from high school. Four or five years later I would have almost
certainly gone into medicine. But when the Hitler situation came up I moved to Bulgaria.
00:09:00My father made the best move and enrolled me in the American College in Sofia.
It was literally called "The American College". It was an outstanding school,
probably best of the top three schools, the others being the German and the
French schools. There were a lot of foreign schools like this, and they were run
by the foreign contingent from that country -- the diplomats. Particularly,
their curricula were associated with each respective country. There was no
British school. The American College basically had the people who were either
English or American-oriented. The main language in every one of those schools
was that particular language, meaning that you learned everything in that
language--German, French, Italian, or English. Bulgarian really became a foreign
language in there, but remember that about 90 percent of the students were
00:10:00Bulgarian who really wanted to learn the language and culture of that country in depth.
Now, at that time, Bulgaria was totally oriented towards Germany, and to a
certain extent, France. The first foreign language that anyone spoke there was
German, and in their higher society, let's say, French. English was just not a
language that people learned, except for the people who went to the American
College. They used it as a very elitist sort of thing. If you look at it
historically, there were an amazing number of important people in Bulgaria who
went to that Bulgarian American school. They saw that English really was the
language to learn, rather than the historical European languages of German and French.
My father had various reasons for sending me to the American School. It was a
boarding school and the others were not. It was outside of Sofia and was
00:11:00coeducational. Therefore you were really immersed in an educational system which
was first class. It was part of the Near East Educational Foundation, which
operated the American University in Beirut, Robert College in Istanbul, and the
American College in Sofia. These were the three stars, and there are a couple of
other smaller places in the constellation. I think there was something in
Greece. The faculty consisted of a mixture of American and English, plus a few
Bulgarians who spoke very good English which was more the British English,
rather than an American English. I would say there was no tendency [to be
American] other than in literature, where the emphasis was on American
literature like Edgar Allan Poe and Hawthorne, rather than Thackeray or
Shakespeare. It was an education which was not only first class, but
linguistically almost overwhelming when you consider it in an American context.
I remember when I started there, which was the equivalent of my freshman year of
00:12:00high school, everything was taught in English, which was a foreign language to
me. Mathematics was taught in Bulgarian. The authorities felt there were no
American high school books (which is true) that taught math at as high a level
as at Central European high schools. The American College operated like a
European Gymnasium or a Realgymnasium, so mathematics was taught in Bulgarian.
They didn't have this subject in English, and I had to adjust to that. Then I
had to take Bulgarian as a foreign language, and this time I really had to take
it because that was taught as Bulgarian literature. They made an exception for
me because I had already indicated that I would be moving to the United States;
they let me take it as a foreign language, rather than as intensely as the
Bulgarians students had to. We had to take a foreign language, which in my case
was French, and we had to take Latin. So, at the same time I took Bulgarian,
English, French, which was a foreign language to me, and Latin. Of course, I
00:13:00spoke German. Linguistically that was quite a challenge, but it really was very worthwhile.
That's when I also took some chemistry, but again it was minimal. There was no
laboratory exposure, and again there was no interest on my part in science other
than medicine. In fact, I do remember at that time reading Paul de Kruif's The
Microbe Hunters. Strangely enough, I discussed that
once with Dr. Joshua Lederberg, who's a very good friend of mine, and now the
president of Rockefeller University. He also indicated that was a book that
really stimulated him. It was more biologically oriented, but for me, it was
really medically oriented. Medicine was the thing, and I remember that was a
book that I thought was extraordinary. There's no question that the day-dreaming
was already starting. If I got into medicine, I would do that type of medicine.
I was only at the American College until November of 1939, a little bit over a
year. In Vienna I was an average student because I enjoyed sports and lots of
00:14:00other things. Also in Vienna they graded you on behavior, and I know my behavior
was always a B- and maybe a C+. In Sofia, for some reason or another, I don't
know why, I really decided to get good grades. I absolutely had the top grades
in that school during that time. They were very formal about it, they posted
these, and I got the equivalent of all "six" records. (Six was the best grade,
and one the worst.)
Suddenly one day my mother, who at that time had moved to England because she
was able to leave Vienna on her Bulgarian passport, wrote that we'd gotten the
American visa and we should now go to the United States. My father sort of
agreed to it. The war broke out in September 1939. We left at the end of
00:15:00November. You could still leave through Italy, which had not yet joined the war.
My father agreed that I should go off to America. He didn't feel the Jews were
threatened in Bulgaria, and decided not to leave. Then my mother came to
Bulgaria, and the three of us, with maybe a couple of friends, drove to Italy.
There we boarded the Rex, which was one of the two largest ships at that time,
an Italian one which was sunk during the war. The reason I mention it is because
I remember being totally miserable, seasick, for nine out of the ten days that
it took for the transatlantic crossing in the winter. When my mother and I left
Bulgaria at that time, I did not see my father until ten years later because
during the war there was essentially no communication during this time between
Bulgaria and the United States. We had a number of Viennese relatives on my
mother's side who had immigrated by now to the United States.
00:16:00THACKRAY: Can we go back to your European childhood for a moment more before we
go into the States? Were you an only child?
THACKRAY: How would you describe your life in Vienna? Were you lonely?
DJERASSI: A lot of people have asked me this. In fact, my former wife was also
an only child, and when we had our first child she talked about the fact that we
should never have an only child. I said, "nonsense." I thought it was great, and
I never felt lonely. I had an enormous number of friends. It was very urban
where I lived in Vienna, so I was an apartment dweller, and not out in the
sticks. School is longer than I think it would be here, and I was always
involved in lots of sports. I was involved in the Boy Scouts, and the Boy Scout
00:17:00movement was very much more sophisticated than it is here. I was always
surrounded by friends and kids, even in the house in which I lived with
grandmother, my mother, and one of my mother's two sisters. She was a very
glamorous woman, and a European fencing champion. She was a very beautiful
woman, and she was also partly an actress. I thought it was great. It never
occurred to me that I should have a brother or sister, partly because there were
so many people around me. Alfred Bader will probably tell you I turned out to be
an enormous poker player at age eleven which was probably true. I did not feel
in that context at all restricted. In many respects it was a very interesting
life. At that time I read the sort of literature that people here would read
maybe when they were twenty. I went to the theatre. At ages twelve to fourteen I
00:18:00was going to see Schiller, Goethe, Lessing, and some Shakespeare. The city was
full of museums, and you automatically went to museums. Not that there was any
particular art in my house, although we had quite a number of art books. I would
say that educationally and culturally, by comparison to what I saw my children
had been exposed to here, I was probably five or six years ahead of the game --
not because of any intellectual prowess, but because you already had this
tremendous segregation in Austria, Germany, England, or France, where at a very
early stage it was decided who would eventually go to the university and who
would become a plebeian. (I use plebeian in an educational context.) So, I knew
all along that I would go to the university and medical school, and everything
00:19:00else that went with it. There was really no opportunity for feeling lonely or
I had the additional advantage of traveling every year, much more than any other
classmate of mine, on the Orient Express--you know, this absolutely fabulous,
mysterious Orient Express to Sofia. That was really quite a trip--through
Hungary and Yugoslavia. Sometimes I took a boat on the Danube all the way down.
That was massive travel, a 24 hour train trip to Turkey. I had never been in a
private car until I came to the United States. I may have ridden in a taxi two
or three times, but otherwise it was always a street car and train rides. Of
course I had never been in an airplane. We didn't have a refrigerator. I'm
giving you an interesting example, because in America in a corresponding
setting, even a lower middle class family would include all these things, but
00:20:00the urban middle class in Vienna did not possess any of these things.
I never wore long pants until I went to the American College in Bulgaria, where
I had to wear my first pair of long pants because there was a uniform. In
Bulgaria all school students had to wear uniforms and had to have their hair
completely shaven. The American College was the only one that did not require
shaven hair. Some of the students were exceedingly proud of this, and grew their
hair to what at that time was considered an enormously luxurious hair growth
though it hardly would be so now. It would be what I'm wearing now, but that was
ten thousand times more hair than any of the other students could wear. They
were completely bald and always wore caps. You see them in pictures of Russia
and Eastern Europe. The other uniforms were quasi-military uniforms, but clearly
uniforms. The American College "uniform", which you only had to wear on weekends
00:21:00when you went into town, was a blue suit. It didn't have to be a completely
identical one, but it had long pants, which were the first long pants I ever
had. All the time I lived in Vienna it was always lederhosen or some other short
pants, and maybe knickers if it was cold.
The other thing that I remember about my youth, because I think in retrospect it
was an extraordinary thing, was a skiing accident in Bulgaria. The American
College was in the foothills around Sofia, which is fairly high anyway. Sofia
itself is six to seven hundred feet high, and there are some fairly high
mountains right outside the city. We used to go hiking with my father every
Sunday. I had a skiing accident which appeared to be trivial, and people called
it water on the knee. But, it was probably the single most important event in my
00:22:00life, and as you'll see in a moment, also in a professional context. That
happened in the last winter that I spent in the Balkans in Bulgaria. I had
developed a mild case of tuberculosis the year before, which I probably did like
so many Viennese and Central European urban kids. It was diagnosed in Bulgaria
and basically was taken care of through what then was TB therapy: spending time
in the mountains and in the sunshine. The reason that I mention the TB is to
associate it with my knee injury. These were two events that happened
concurrently. That's relevant, as you'll see later.
My mother and I arrived in New York in early December with something like twenty
dollars in our pocket because there was no way of getting any dollars out of
00:23:00Europe. We were well off in the context of a Central European or Bulgarian urban
setting, but in America we were impoverished. The cost of living here was much,
much more, and the dollar was hard currency and the Bulgarian leva was useless.
We literally had twenty dollars.
This is why I can still empathize with people coming from Vietnam or Cambodia or
Haiti, even though it was a different immigration group. It was an
extraordinarily well educated group that had a support structure here which was,
basically, Jewish immigration services which in fact took in "boat people". They
were all boat people, because no one came by plane at that time. These boat
people were absorbed, and we were. I think the system was called HIAS, which
00:24:00must be Hebrew Immigration Assistance, or something like that. We of course,
spent the first couple of nights with some Viennese relatives of my mother's,
and I still remember arriving by boat in New York and literally being taken for
the proverbial ride by the local cab driver. We took a cab to their place, which
was a few miles away from the boat. He charged us literally the entire twenty
dollars for what was probably a two dollar cab ride, and that cleaned us out
absolutely and totally. I still remember that.
STURCHIO: Welcome to New York! [laughter]
DJERASSI: It's sort of striking to arrive somewhere just having nothing. My
mother had to start working immediately and could not practice medicine. The
system was very strict at that time, no one could practice medicine, unless they
went through the whole examination system. For someone in their fifties this was
00:25:00difficult or even impossible. For a couple of years my mother worked as an
assistant to a physician in upstate New York.
I immediately decided to try to go to school. Literally two days after we
arrived, just after the HIAS assistance group got us a room in a brownstone
house around West 68th or 70th Street near Central Park, I took a letter to a
young assistant professor at NYU from one of my teachers at the American
College. Now, just remember that the American College in Sofia was a six year
program, which in the American equivalent would mean the last two years of
grammar school and the first four years of high school. Nevertheless, it was
called "The American College." To Americans, of course, "college" meant
00:26:00something else than it did to the Bulgarians, who in the local context
considered it as a high school. Everything I had was in English, and the
certificate said "The American College." According to that, I had just left
after the first couple of months of my junior year at the American College,
which was really equivalent to the junior year of high school. I had planned to
go to high school in New York, but I really didn't know anything about high
schools in America.
Then this American teacher in Sofia said, "Visit my friend at New York
University and he will help you." So, I went to him and he was very nice. I
showed my certificate and said, "Please tell me where to go and what to study."
He asked what I wanted to do, and I said, "probably medicine." He said, "Well,
unfortunately, you can't get into NYU now because it's in September that we
admit students." (This was December.) Somehow, I realized what this man was
00:27:00talking about--he thought I was applying to the university, and I didn't let on.
I realized this was an extraordinary opportunity. He said, "I have a friend who
teaches at Newark Junior College in Newark, New Jersey. Why don't you go across
the river and maybe they can do something for you. They may be more flexible."
A couple of days later I went through the Hudson tunnel to New Jersey, and they
were delighted. At that time junior colleges were not what they are now. There
were relatively few. In fact, this one doesn't exist anymore. It was a very
interesting place because many of the students were first class, but could not
afford to go to any type of school for economic reasons. They were largely blue
collar, but these were people who absolutely felt they had to go and get an
education. Some were part-time, and some full-time, and they lived at home. The
level of education was, in fact, quite high. The teachers were rather young,
enthusiastic people who hadn't gotten faculty jobs at other places, but the
level of education was really very good. These people took one look at me, saw I
00:28:00was an all A student, I had first class recommendations, and said, "We'll accept
you as a freshman in college." I was all of sixteen at that time. Overnight, I
skipped two years of high school, not because of any brilliance of mine, but
basically because of a bureaucratic device. I took advantage of it. I must have
realized that the moment I got into the American system, no one would ever again
ask me for a high school diploma, and then I'd be a professional transfer
student. That already gave me two years. That was a great advantage.
[END OF TAPE, SIDE 1]
DJERASSI: I became a chemist at Newark Junior College. This is why I'm spending
a large amount of time talking about this because in a way it is a pity that
this institution doesn't exist anymore. The classes were very small, and it was
00:29:00really almost a tutorial, with half a dozen to a dozen students. In particular,
there was a teacher called Nathan Washton, who is now professor emeritus at
Queens College. He wrote to me, about two months ago, and sent me a clipping
which he found in his papers from 1940. It showed a photograph of me with
another student in his class which was reproduced in the local newspaper. It was
yellow with age, but I kept it. It's actually quite amusing. I still remember
what it shows. It's strange how little things like this make an impact on you.
He was a chemistry teacher and an outstanding one. He was no great scientist. In
fact, he had his Ph.D. from an institution that I've never heard of. But he was
an outstanding teacher, and he taught chemistry in a first class way. The
00:30:00experiment in the newspaper showed a Bunsen burner heating what turned out to be
soup in a paper cup, demonstrating the fact that you could heat a paper cup with
an open flame if you have a liquid in it. He was trying to demonstrate phenomena
in a very simple way.
I took chemistry and biology because all of this was required for premed
students. It was the first time I thought that maybe I should emphasize the
science part of the premedical curriculum as a scientist rather than just as a
premed student. I also recognized how expensive it would be to go to medical
school. Remember, I did not have one cent. I went to Newark Junior College when
I was admitted, and this refugee support institution then found a family in New
Jersey who took me into their home. So, I lived at their home in Newark. That
was their contribution, to give me free room and board, and Newark Junior
College didn't charge me any tuition. (I don't think there probably was any
00:31:00tuition.) So, I would live for 50 cents a week, because that was all I needed. I
would walk to school, and there were no extra expenses. Meanwhile, my mother
lived in upstate New York, and I spent my vacations there in a small town where
she was an assistant to a physician. I took a very heavy load at Newark Junior
College because I was accustomed to taking many more courses than people do
here. Within one semester, I had already completed the freshman year of college.
I caught up with the rest of the people in my freshman year of college, and then
I realized that junior college was only one more year.
At that time there were two institutions that had special scholarships for
junior college graduates--the University of Chicago and Kenyon College in Ohio.
They had special competitive fellowships for which you had to apply, and they
00:32:00were only open to junior college graduates. I applied to them in the hope that I
would get into one of these places. I applied for a room and board scholarship,
which I really felt I needed.
Two years ago, when I cleaned up a lot of my files and was preparing to throw
some things away, I discovered that I had kept all my correspondence from when I
was sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen years old. What I found in there staggered
my imagination, and I must have hidden this somewhere in my psyche. I had
written a two page letter to Eleanor Roosevelt. When you were in Europe, she
appeared to be the queen of America. We knew her in that context, as a person to
whom everything was possible. We had learned how to write formal letters at the
American College. I still have my exercise book, which is hilarious. For
00:33:00instance, we had to learn how to write job applications and formal letters. I
had these really hilarious ones which I had to make up, and on that basis I
learned exactly where to put the date, and address, and stuff like this. I wrote
a very stilted letter. It wasn't letter-perfect English, by any means, but it
was much better than most immigrants had at the time because I had had one and
one half years of total English speaking education in Bulgaria. So, I wrote,
"Dear Mrs. Roosevelt... My name is Carl Djerassi, blah, blah, blah...I need a
room, board, and tuition scholarship, can you help me?" I got a reply from her
secretary, which I also found in my files. It said that Mrs. Roosevelt thanked
me for my letter, and she would see what she could do, and she'll put me in
touch with the Institute for International Education, with which she was involved.
00:34:00I didn't hear anything further about this and instead wound up at Newark Junior
College. Then, that winter, in December, while I was in Ellenburg, New York,
near the Canadian border where my mother worked in the bitter cold (it's very
close to Plattsburgh, New York), I got a post card, not a letter, saying, "Dear
Mr. Djerassi, you've been offered a room, board, and tuition scholarship at
Tarkio College in Tarkio, Missouri." I had never heard of Tarkio College, and I
didn't know where Tarkio, Missouri, was. I hardly knew where Missouri was
because one of the interesting deficiencies in my high school education was that
I never had any American history and no American geography. This was simply not
taught in Viennese schools, and at the American College at Sofia it was just due
to be taught in the year that I left. This has been an absolute vacuum in my own
education, and I discovered it was also a vacuum in another very distinguished
00:35:00chemist's education. Gilbert Stork, who was my closest chemical friend and
classmate at the University of Wisconsin, came from Europe at the same time I
did. He came from France in exactly the same sort of scenario, and also
completely missed that sort of education.
So I looked Tarkio up on a map and found it to be in the northwest corner of
Missouri, a few miles from the Nebraska and Iowa border. I really didn't know
how I got this scholarship. I then discovered it was through the Institute of
International Education because of the letter to Mrs. Roosevelt. Tarkio is a
four year Presbyterian college in the center of the Bible Belt. I learned while
I was there, that the most distinguished graduate of Tarkio College was none
other than Wallace Carothers. That was just extraordinary, because at that time
00:36:00I was really getting interested in chemistry, and they told me "This is
Carothers' school." By that time, even I knew who Carothers was.
I decided to accept that offer, and left Newark Junior College in the second
semester of my sophomore year. In January of 1941 I headed for Tarkio, Missouri.
It was one of the longest bus rides in my life. I had to take a bus to
Pittsburgh, from there to St. Louis, from St. Louis to Kansas City, from Kansas
City to St. Joseph, Missouri, always changing to smaller and smaller lines. When
I arrived in Tarkio, Missouri, I was not quite seventeen. I was the only
European they had ever met in their lives. This was sort of their pro bono
publico gesture to the refugees from Europe. The local newspaper had an article
In the first week, the Rotary Club asked me to talk to them about the European
situation. I was a kid of seventeen, so I decided to quickly read up on John
Gunther's Inside Europe and plagiarized it a bit.
Otherwise, I was enormously persuasive because of my accent. I came from
Bulgaria, and most Americans didn't even know where Bulgaria was. Austria was
confusing enough; I'm sure there was not one person there who could tell you
what countries bordered on Bulgaria. I had to stop and realize what a Rotary
Club meant in a town of two or three or five thousand people. Everyone was
there, of course, and it apparently was a smashing success.
Right after the talk the local minister came up, and asked if I would speak to a
church group about the European situation. (I think there are more churches in
Tarkio, Missouri, than in Palo Alto. It was very church-oriented, and at the
00:38:00College you had to go to compulsory chapel every day.) Even then, it was only my
second public talk, and I felt I didn't want to repeat myself (just like here I
don't like to give the same chemical talk twice). So, I plagiarized some more of
John Gunther and gave a second talk. [laughter] I remember the minister calling
me afterwards to his office and thanking me. Then, with some embarrassment, he
said he was sorry he had to do it this way, and presented me with a handful of
dimes and quarters. What he did was give me the collection. That was the lecture
fee, and that was my first lecture fee. As a result of that, I then went out
every Sunday to talk on these church circuits in Iowa and in northwestern
00:39:00Missouri. That is how I made my pocket money, which at that time seemed
I still remember the Methodist church in Shenandoah, Iowa, which was one of my
real disasters. By that time I was very blase about these talks. I used to
listen to the church service and read something because I would be speaking
afterwards. I remember the collection plate coming around and my putting a
fifty-cent piece into it. At that time that was a lot of money, particularly in
a collection, which was dimes, nickels, and quarters. In fact, I put the half
dollar in there because I knew I'd get it back. This way, maybe people would get
encouraged to put half a dollar in there. It turned out it was the only lecture
I never got paid for. [laughter] I found myself having paid fifty cents to
listen to myself. I was really ticked off, and to this day that is the only
church I remember.
00:40:00The moment I accepted the fellowship at Tarkio College, which was for room,
board, and tuition, I became ineligible for the Kenyon and Chicago ones, which
were for junior college graduates only. Suddenly, I found myself having to go
three years to Tarkio. Frankly, while I enjoyed it very much, and it was very
interesting culturally, I basically wanted to get farther east again. On my way
home, I stopped at Kenyon College, which I had never visited. They were
impressed by me and they offered me a room, board, and tuition scholarship, in
spite of the fact that I was no longer a junior college graduate. I accepted
that, and therefore spent only one semester at Tarkio College. In the fall of
1941, I started at Kenyon College.
It was a beautiful place, geographically and from every other standpoint. There
was an interesting aspect about Kenyon. At that time it was only a men's
college, and had a total enrollment of 300 students. The total chemistry faculty
was two, and the English department had ten. By that time it was already
00:41:00internationally known through The Kenyon Review, and John Crowe Ransom, one of
the great critics in American literature, was there. The reason I'm mentioning
that to you is because my first literary reading of some poetry and fiction that
I'm writing now, I gave at Kenyon College last year, and then at Penn State. It
was sort of my return to my literary home. I got my second honorary degree from
Kenyon College, together with Robert Lowell, the American poet who was also a
graduate of Kenyon.
So I went to Kenyon. The chemistry professors, one organic and one physical,
were outstanding. By that time I had taken all my chemistry and biology courses,
and was still more or less premed. But I was so oriented towards science I did
my senior research in physical chemistry. This was in a sense a tutorial. In
00:42:00organic chemistry, there were four students in that class, and in physical
chemistry there were two. They were first class people. The organic chemist was
named Walter Coolidge, and he got his Ph.D. at Hopkins. The physical chemist
(they are now both dead) was Bayes Norton, who got his Ph.D. at Yale. They were
really outstanding teachers.
Otherwise, I also had an outstanding education, including English. I enjoyed
that very much. So that was ostensibly the beginning of my junior year. I
finished it in basically one year, because at that time the war had broken out.
They had accelerated programs, and there was a program during the summer. So I
started as a junior in September of 1941, and got my bachelor's degree in
October of 1942.
Just before my eighteenth birthday, I was out of college. That was due to two
lucky events: a) having skipped two years of college, and b) getting into the
00:43:00accelerated program. Now, this is where my knee injury comes in. It turns out
that the knee injury in Bulgaria was diagnosed as water on the knee. But, it
started to bother me more and more. I couldn't quite bend my knee as much as
possible any more. Eventually, it turned out to be a tubercular infection of the
knee joint due to that skiing accident and the tubercular infection that I had
in my lungs at that time. It took a long time to diagnose it. That is why I now
have a fused knee. I actually volunteered for military service, and was rejected
as 4F. So, while all the other people my age couldn't even go to college, I was
already finished with college and couldn't go into the military. In a country in
which the premium was put on youth, that made an enormous difference.
00:44:00I had no money at that time and had to work. I couldn't go to graduate school or
medical school. By that time I decided medicine still interested me, and I would
work for a pharmaceutical company. I still remember being in the doctor's office
where my mother worked, and looking at all the ads and promotional material for
the many pharmaceutical companies in New York and New Jersey. I cut out their
addresses and wrote a form letter to every one of them. Ciba (at that time it
was not Ciba-Geigy, it was just Ciba Pharmaceutical Company) in Summit, New
Jersey, hired me as a junior chemist. I accepted that job and started in October
or November of 1942.
At that point, my plans had been to work in industry and go to graduate school
at night. I was really East Coast-oriented, and thought that I would go to
either NYU or Brooklyn Poly. They were two schools that had night programs;
00:45:00there were a lot of part-time students and I would work for my Ph.D. By that
time I had already decided I didn't want to go into medicine, I wanted to do
chemical research. I really got into chemistry by way of my interest in
medicine. My interest in chemical research always was on the biological side,
rather than the physical side, even though my senior thesis was in physical
chemistry, and perhaps my most intimate and favorite teacher was a physical chemist.
That year at Ciba, just before my nineteenth birthday, clinched it, because I
was treated essentially like a Ph.D. chemist. The person with whom I worked at
that time was a man named Charles Huttrer, who was himself a refugee from
Vienna, and a Ph.D. chemist. He was twenty years older than I, but he treated me
00:46:00as an absolute equal. We worked together on what at that time turned out to be a
very hot problem, namely the synthesis of an antihistamine. There were no
antihistamines. The concept had really been discovered intellectually in France,
and the person who brought it to the United States and to Ciba was a man named
Rudy Meyer. He was chief pharmacologist there, and also a European refugee from
Hitler who came from Alsace. He was German-French trained and brought that
training with him. He decided to launch a pharmacological screening program in
antihistamines at Ciba, and the chemical work was done by Huttrer and myself.
It was unbelievable that within four or five months we literally synthesized
what turned out to be the compound Pyribenzamine.
Together with Benadryl --(which of course we didn't know at that time), it was a
parallel development at Parke-Davis by George Rieveschl -- they were the two
00:47:00antihistamines that entered the market in the same year: Benadryl from
Parke-Davis and Pyribenzamine from Ciba. Of course,
introduction on the market was two or three years later. The speed at that time
was incomprehensibly fast. These two were important drugs at that time, because
suddenly there were hundreds of thousands of hay fever sufferers and other
people who got relief. People have forgotten how important an antihistamine
appeared at that time, compared to what is available now. Of course they are
still important, but nothing compared to what they were then. This was really
part and parcel of the real chemotherapeutic revolution because it was just a
few years after the first sulfa drug. At that time there were no antibiotics. By
then I was totally turned on by organic chemical research. We were talking
00:48:00everyday about practical applications and interacting closely with pharmacology.
THACKRAY: Let's go back again into events leading up to this. As you were
thinking and looking about what to do, were you talking with your mother a lot?
DJERASSI: About science?
THACKRAY: No, about where to head in career terms and whether to give up the
idea of being a physician, since your mother was one. Who, if anyone, were the
important people out there?
DJERASSI: In that context, there was no one in terms of making decisions,
although there were some who advised me. For instance, while I lived in Newark,
New Jersey, I forgot there was another important family with whom I maintained
contact through a lot of correspondence. At Newark Junior College I lived for
one semester with one family and the second semester with another family. The
first family was Mr. and Mrs. Roth, with whom I have lost contact; I don't know
00:49:00if they are alive anymore. The second family was the Meiers. That was a very
interesting family. She was school teacher, and Mr. Meier was an inorganic
chemist at what is now Englehard Industries. He had two sons, one a year older
than I, and one a year younger. They were all highly intellectual and really
chemically oriented. I think that also made a difference in me. To give you an
example, his younger son, Paul Meier, is the chairman of the Statistics
Department at the University of Chicago. The oldest son, August Meier, is one of
the best known American professors in Black history and is now a professor at
Kent State University in Ohio. I have maintained occasional contact with them.
The older Meiers were like my "parents". I always called them Mr. and Mrs.
00:50:00Meier. There was this formality, partly because of the European influence and
partly because of them. They treated me as an adult, yet they gave me a lot of
advice. If I had any discussion with anyone, it was probably with the Meiers
rather than with anyone else.
My mother, who was a very possessive person, lived with me. In fact, I
eventually broke off with her because she led in many respects to the break-up
of my first marriage and would almost immediately have broken down my second
marriage. She felt that--well, this only son business was much more of a
phenomenon with her than it was with me. When I started working in Newark, New
Jersey, she quit her job and lived with me. I was the sole support of the two of
us for that one year while I was at Ciba.
I then decided I wanted to go to graduate school and did so at night. I first
started at NYU, which was an unmitigated disaster. It's unfair to talk cruelly
00:51:00about someone, but I still remember the man. Ritter, who was one of the
chemistry professors there, almost turned me off permanently from night school,
and certainly from NYU. You work all day, take a train for one hour to New York,
to take a laboratory course, and half the time he would not be there. There
would be a sign that would say the class was cancelled. Students would come from
God knows where, by subway or train, and suddenly they'd have to go back home
again. The reason that I even managed to get credit in this course was that I
had access to a lab at Ciba, and I could do the experiments there. It was
shocking. I felt the treatment of students was such that I was tremendously
turned off. That affected how I would treat my own students after that. One
thing that I've never done, and by now my academic career spans some thirty
years, is to cancel a class. If it happened that I couldn't give a lecture, I
00:52:00would give another class, and the students would know way in advance. That is
something I almost felt paranoid about.
Then I didn't do that but I took a couple of courses at Brooklyn Poly, which was
an even longer commute. There they were much better on that context, and there
were no cancellations. But I realized that this would be murderous, and it would
probably take me eight years to get a Ph.D. Of course, there were some students
who did that. I was in a fantastic hurry, and that was completely out of the
question. After about eight months at Ciba, I said, "To hell with that. I'll do
exactly the opposite." I had saved essentially no money, but I was now totally
self-supporting. I was intellectually and professionally much more mature than
others, but not necessarily as a human being. Scientifically, I clearly knew a
hell of a lot more than the other graduate students. I really had that
experience and at that stage I was very good in the lab. I really knew what I
00:53:00wanted. I decided I was going to go to graduate school "express".
I looked at catalogs, and most universities at that time said that you have to
have nine semesters. Since most schools also had a summer semester, you could
bureaucratically get a Ph.D. in two years. So I said, "All right, I'll get my
Ph.D. in two years and then I'll go back to Ciba." The Ciba people were actually
very nice because they said, "Yes, if you want to go to graduate school
full-time [because I did very well there], we'll almost certainly hire you
back." They offered me a very modest supplementary stipend if I got a fellowship
somewhere. So, they were very supportive of this. There was a director of
research there named Caesar Scholz. He was very Swiss-German, and he was a nice
00:54:00guy, not a great chemist, but he also supported me.
I still remember the schools I applied to, because I applied to biochemistry
departments in part. Northwestern was one, Hopkins was another one, and
Wisconsin was one. There I applied to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation
[WARF]. There may have been a couple of other institutions, but I don't
remember. I remember these three because I was turned down by Hopkins.
Northwestern actually interviewed me, and I also interviewed with people at
Wisconsin on the same trip. They were all very nice to me, but the Northwestern
biochemistry department was very small. People have no idea of the few research
funds that were available at that time.
By that time I had decided I wanted to work on steroids. I had no experience
with steroids, but Ciba was a powerhouse of steroid chemistry. There were a
number of chemists working on sex hormone chemistry. Just then I was reading
00:55:00Fieser's The Chemistry of Natural Products Related to Phenanthrene. (The second
edition was just called Steroids). I felt that if any
book ever made an impact on me, that was it. It was superbly written. I was
turned on by steroid chemistry, the same way I was turned on by Paul de Kruif's
book, except here we are talking about a scientific book. I said steroid
chemistry was going to be what I wanted to do in graduate school. That is the
way I picked Wisconsin, because there were two people there, A. L. Wilds and
William S. Johnson, who were working on this, and I got a WARF research
fellowship which was $65 a month, and that literally made it possible for me to
survive. It's an interesting demonstration of what it cost to live at that time.
[END OF TAPE, SIDE 2]
THACKRAY: You were obviously way ahead of American students.
00:56:00DJERASSI: Certainly by age.
THACKRAY: Here you are, nineteen or twenty years old, graduated, employed, and
obviously very European. Were you making friends with American students? What
was your peer group? How did you fit or not fit in with the social world?
DJERASSI: I both did and did not fit. Newark Junior College was the ideal place,
because we were all American without exception. They were financially as poor as
I was, so there was no financial barrier. This is where I made friends
instantaneously. With the Roth family, their son went to Newark Junior College,
and he was my closest friend; at the Meier family there was one boy a year
younger than I was and one a year older. So in both cases I lived in homes where
00:57:00I was literally treated like another son in the family. There was no problem; at
the junior college they were my equals.
At Tarkio College I felt like a fish out of water in many respects, but an
amused one who observed the midwestern church scene, which was totally strange
to me in every context. I really didn't make any intimate friends. No, that's
not true: I made one very good friend, a farmboy. In fact, when he invited me
home during vacation times, I learned to drive a tractor. I suppose they didn't
discriminate, and that was very good for me. I liked the maverick part of it.
Kenyon College was an enormous drinking school, there was a great deal of
drinking, but I didn't touch alcohol. It was completely self-imposed. I never
smoked and I never drank, even though my father was a chain smoker and the
subject of drinking never came up in my family, pro or con. So I made it an
absolute fetish not to touch alcohol, and I observed the drinking orgies in a
00:58:00very superior manner. I did my social life in a men's college. There were no
women around, except for the weekends when students went in their cars to
various places. I went hitchhiking to girls' colleges. My girlfriends were met
and acquired at other women's colleges. I had a very active social life. I also
had a roommate, except for the last semester. I didn't feel at all isolated or
anything like that. I felt a little bit like an observer, but an exceedingly
interested observer, not at all an observer who felt in any context either
mistreated or misunderstood because of my accent. There were no Europeans at
Kenyon, but they were very sympathetic to the refugee status at that time, in
00:59:00particular a refugee from Hitler. It was a very different thing from what they
had here. There was really an element of kindness, if you want to call it that.
A woman that I met on a blind date I married just before I went out to the
University of Wisconsin. Even there, I married at age nineteen and a half. My
mother, of course, nearly fainted because I really didn't ask her, I informed
her of the fact. She had to give me permission because I needed it legally. I
remember I could not get married [without it] because I was married in Ohio. My
wife lived in Dayton and taught high school there. She was roughly four years
older than I. It turned out that until my middle 30s all the women whom I had
anything to do with were from four to six years older than I. It was perfectly
understandable because my peers were all considerably older.
01:00:00This was actually the first real problem with my mother, who lived with me. When
I decided to go to Wisconsin to accept the fellowship I had there, I announced
to her that I was going to marry a woman she had never met. She had to give me
permission, and I moved out to Wisconsin. After a few days she decided to move
in with us. My American wife was a very kind and very decent woman who put up
with things that no one else would. My mother was a typical European
mother-in-law. She was totally domineering, and it was really terrible, but my
wife put up with it. Even though we married when I was nineteen and a half, I
didn't feel that I wasn't ready. I'd already had a job for a year and was
equivalent to other people who were twenty-three or twenty-four. I had a
research fellowship at the University of Wisconsin, I had a supplementary grant
from Ciba, which would have been totally self-supporting for me, and paid for
01:01:00the apartment. My wife was an English teacher, and she had a job near Madison.
We managed perfectly well, like graduate students do now. We didn't have a car
of course, but we didn't really need one simply because we lived two blocks from campus.
I still remember getting to Wisconsin. Before I started, I interviewed Wilds and
Johnson. Johnson has an office directly above me here. He brought me here to
Stanford, but at that time he was just one of the professors. I knew what I
wanted to do: steroids, not total synthesis, but partial synthesis. Wilds was
interested in both areas, while Johnson was interested in total synthesis, so I
picked Wilds. Both were young assistant professors. They both were excellent
01:02:00choices, although Johnson became by far the more famous. I was one of the first
graduate students of Wilds, and in some respects might have been one of the
last. I published a fair number of things with him, and he published hardly
anything after. He just retired this year. I remember telling him that I had to
get my Ph.D. in two years. Wilds was a very gentle man; he sort of looked at me
and smiled and said, "How are you going to do that?" I said, "Well, it says here
in the catalog. I'm going to do both summers--that will be one year. Then, the
other two [academic] years. So, I will start in September and finish in
September. That is legally three years." And he said, "There are a few other
things like doing a Ph.D. thesis and courses." Clearly, you could take these
courses in that period of time, and he just shrugged his shoulders.
01:03:00I actually managed to get my Ph.D. in two years, but only because I was lucky in
my research. If the research had not worked out then, I couldn't have done it. I
was not a student who ever worked at night in the lab. I never worked at night.
I was not one of these guys who worked 60-80 hours a week. I realize in
retrospect that I was incredibly well organized. I knew exactly how to do
experiments, and maybe it was because of the experience at Ciba. I could set
something up at eight and while it was refluxing I'd take some classes. I'd come
back and take the reaction off. I didn't go in for a coffee break. I was
married, and in the evening my wife and I did things and I didn't want to go
back to the lab. But I literally don't think I spent one evening there in the
lab. I basically went straight through and there were relatively few things that
did not work.
01:04:00The most important friendship I made was with Gilbert Stork. I learned more
chemistry from him than from anyone else. He worked with S. L. McElvain. At that
time Gilbert was already fantastic. He worked on four different projects--the
total synthesis of morphine, quinine, biotin, and I forget the other--without
his supervisor knowing it. Of course, he didn't finish any of these projects. He
conned me into working with him on the morphine approach on the side. It would
take me three hours just to talk about what Stork and I did in Wisconsin. But I
learned much organic chemistry just through my interaction with him, and he
possibly with me. We always had lunch together.
THACKRAY: Was he there before you?
DJERASSI: The same time. I think he actually came a semester or two earlier, and
then had to work as a fertilizer chemist because they kicked him out of the
chemistry department for a while. Both of us nearly didn't make it, which is
also rather ironic. In my case it was because I flunked the inorganic qualifying
01:05:00examination the first time. There you had all four qualifiers and you could only
take one over if you flunked one. I flunked inorganic. Gilbert Stork did
something as a teaching assistant and his inorganic supervisor became so furious
that he kicked him out of the chemistry department. He had to do fertilizer
analyses in the Ag school for a semester. So both of us had somewhat tenuous
beginnings. Gilbert Stork was also married, so we really hit it off very well.
We were very close friends in every context, chemically and personally, and
we've remained close friends ever since. He became the first consultant at
Syntex when I went to Syntex and our lives have crisscrossed in many respects.
01:06:00Wisconsin worked exceedingly well and Wilds was probably the ideal adviser for
me. He was very mild mannered, very diplomatic, and had an incredible laboratory
technique. He was the sort of person who both left you alone and yet saw you
every day. Nothing escaped him, and yet you had the sense that you were doing
things on your own. I learned really good laboratory technique--good laboratory
notebooks, and things like that. Yet I was left to do a lot of things on my own.
I really got a lot of work done, and if you think under what circumstances they
were done--there was no infrared and no UV instrument at the University of
Wisconsin Chemistry Department. There was one Beckman DU in the School of
Chemical Engineering, which was in another building. In fact, I was one of the
first students to use chromatography. I used all these techniques. That was one
01:07:00of the great things about steroid chemistry. I used things that other people
only started using. Column chromatography was very uncommon, but I was very
accustomed to these things already from my Ciba days. I had to run my own UV's,
and the Chemical Engineering Department only permitted me to use it as an
outsider. Wilds literally accompanied me and stood next to me while I used that
precious instrument--a cheap Beckman DU. We would walk together across campus
and he would stand next to me while I would run my UVs. The polarimeter was in
the biochemistry department. I had my biochemistry under K.P. Link who was a
marvelous person. I had to go five blocks in another direction to run my optical
rotations. In a way, instrumentation, if you think about it, was extraordinarily
primitive. It was par for the course for American institutions at that time.
01:08:00I got everything done and published three papers with
Wilds. The problem that we worked on was the partial
synthesis of the estrogenic hormones from the androgens. (We then completed it.)
That applied problem was important, because at that time estrogens were the only
steroid hormones that had not yet been synthesized. Wilds was very interested in
this because he had totally synthesized equilenin, which was the first synthesis
of any steroid, when he was a graduate student at
Michigan. Therefore, estrogen interested him. In a
scientific context, we could say it was a problem with the partial aromatization
of a polycyclic molecule where you only wanted to aromatize one ring, and the
ring was totally blocked for aromatization. That's a tough problem. This is how
we got involved in a dienone-phenol rearrangement. His advice, and it was
marvelous, was to use the one partial aromatization that is known in the
01:09:00literature. This was a methyl migration in the sesquiterpene santonin, and by
migration you aromatize the ring containing the dienone system. He suggested to
study dienone systems, and make a model dienone. That's what I did--I studied
that reaction. I don't remember whether he or I called it the dienone-phenol
rearrangement, but one of us did; and the first time it appeared in the
literature was first in my Ph.D. thesis, and then in our paper.
It turned out that I coined several reaction names. The dienone-phenol
rearrangement was one, and the Jones oxidation is another one. E. R. H. Jones
was a friend of mine, and I referred to it in one of our papers as the Jones
oxidation, and now of course everyone calls it that. I
also believe I was the first one to have called the Birch reduction the Birch
01:10:00reduction. Birch was an old friend of mine, and was the second consultant at
Syntex. I really think I may have called it that. But, getting back to the
Wisconsin part, that's how we got involved in the dienone-phenol rearrangement.
THACKRAY: Can you talk a little about who the competition were at that moment?
DJERASSI: The competition in aromatization was not just competition, it was
really someone who anticipated it, and that was in Germany. Without a doubt he
[H. H. Inhoffen] had published the first successful aromatization in the steroid
field. That was in 1939, in Berichte. Then the war
broke out and there were no more publications. After the war there were these
Department of Commerce reports on research in Germany during the war, and then
01:11:00we read about someone who worked then at Schering in Berlin. By that time he was
an industrial chemist. (In fact, he was one of the prize Nazis who had worked at
Organon for the Nazis in Holland. There were some very nasty things. I mention
it only because emotionally you can well imagine how I felt about Germans at
that time. I'll be very open about this--it took me a long time to get over
that. I had absolutely no personal knowledge of Hans Inhoffen other than he was
a Nazi chemist about whom we heard all kinds of tales, such as what he did at
Organon to scientists there.) But that was real competition. Subsequently, the
best people were at Schering in Bloomfield, New Jersey, and in particular
Herschberg. Now, that was friendly competition. I respected these people very
01:12:00much. When I returned to Ciba, I continued this work. In fact, I did keep in
touch with Herschberg. That was about the one competition in that context.
The dienone-phenol rearrangement then became fashionable as a result of the
first two papers that Wilds and I published together. We covered it
mechanistically in two other papers. Then, other people became interested. Bob
Woodward became interested in it and published a paper on it and he and I
discussed that many times. There were a lot of people
including Andre Dreiding, and people in Vienna.
THACKRAY: I wanted to ask you why you didn't have Harvard on your list of places
to try, with Woodward and Fieser there?
01:13:00DJERASSI: When I applied I knew nothing about Woodward. It was not a name that
meant anything to me or anyone else. In fact, the very first time I heard about
Woodward was through Gilbert Stork. And so did Gilbert, in perhaps the most
dramatic seminar at Wisconsin. Gilbert Stork was interested in quinine. He had a
marvelous idea of how to synthesize quinine with McElvain, and gave one of his
seminars on quinine. He had heard at that point that there was this young
Harvard man Woodward, who, with Doering was working on the total synthesis of
quinine. He wrote to him asking him for information, but Woodward did not reply.
The day before Gilbert's seminar he [Woodward] called him up, which was
extraordinary, because here's this graduate student at Wisconsin and there's
this professor at Harvard, and someone at Harvard calls him and gives him all
the information over the phone. It was Woodward's style. Now, all the seminars
were attended by all the faculty members and all the students. It was always
chock-full. Gilbert talked about quinine, and suddenly announced all these
things from Woodward that no one even knew about. This was absolutely
01:14:00extraordinary. That started the friendship between Gilbert Stork and Woodward,
and Gilbert went to Harvard. That's when I first heard about Woodward. Now
Fieser...I guess I was too impressed by Harvard. I still had this feeling of
being totally impoverished, and Harvard was an expensive, fancy school. I didn't
even write to Harvard, or any of the fancy schools. In that respect I guess it
was the attitude of the money part.
THACKRAY: The immigrant penalty. If you had been back in Sofia, and Harvard had
been there, you naturally would have applied.
DJERASSI: It never occurred to me. I didn't write anything to Harvard. Fieser
was a name but not at all a person. Actually, come to think of it, Fieser's work
01:15:00in steroid chemistry at that time was minimal. His interest was in phenanthrene
and polycyclic chemistry. He became interested in steroids only when I was
working on cortisone and then we became good friends, and equals, particularly
with Mary Fieser. When it comes to actually publishing in the steroid field, his
real interest in steroids almost coincided with mine. I mean, laboratory
interests, and not intellectual ones because there he was way ahead. This was
really the sort of competition at that time.
There are a number of amusing stories. I can tell you one which is about an
Indian, whose name I can't remember, something like Sengupta or Mukerjee or
01:16:00Chatterjee, who published a total asymmetric synthesis of
santonin. Now, he used an approach very similar to
our approach, which was a condensation. Why don't I show it to you on a piece of
paper right here? [sketches reaction and proceeds to explain the concept.] If
you think about santonin being this, and desmotroposantonin, the acid-catalyzed
rearrangement then being this aromatic compound, the rest is the same here. Well
in the dienone system we generated, I'll write it this way by taking alpha
formyl ketone and condensing it with acetone, and that would give you this here.
That was the type of condensation we carried out. This Indian, whose name I
01:17:00don't remember, reported the synthesis of this, and said he did a total
asymmetric synthesis by just condensing this with acetone and getting this
Now this was an astounding thing. He claimed that he had done this condensation
without any polarized light, and he published it. Well, I became so incredibly
excited about this condensation because we did a similar dienone condensation in
the polycyclic series, and I said, "My God, then ours would have to be optically
active, too." I didn't tell it to Wilds, but I told it to Gilbert Stork. He
immediately came out with the rationalization of why it should be so, absolutely
convinced why it would work. Well, I ran for five blocks with my compound to the
biochemistry department and ran the rotation. By God, mine had a rotation of
minus 40 degrees, which is enormous. The only totally asymmetric synthesis
people had done at that time was with polarized light. There you'd get a
01:18:00fraction of a fraction of a degree of rotation, 0.01 degrees, or something like
that. I ran all the way back into Wilds' lab and said, "It's optically active."
I thought it was sensational, and the man just looked at me with a smile and
said, "I think you should run it again, to be absolutely sure." So I ran back
and did it again. It turned out to be a contaminated polarimeter tube. You see,
Link worked only with carbohydrates, and they had all these optically active
things. So there was a trace of some crap in there. When I ran it again it
turned out to be 0.00 + or - 0 [laughter]. John Cornforth, the Nobel Prize
winner, subsequently wrote a marvelous article in Nature debunking that man's
article in a brilliant way. Cornforth has calculated
01:19:00the odds are something like 1 x 1040. Then he points out how many times you have
to repeat it in order to get that. That was one of the santonin stories that
went around at that time.
Santonin became an exceedingly important molecule. There were people like Derek
Barton and Oskar Jeger in Switzerland, who used it for many of the photochemical
reactions. Woodward became very much interested in it. I myself did subsequent
work and have published quite a number of papers. I became interested in this
acid-catalyzed rearrangement in the steroid field and in other polycyclics. We
published a fair amount. At that time it became quite a fashionable field. The
main emphasis was to try to develop a conversion of the androgens to estrogens.
The thing that I succeeded in doing at Wisconsin, not in any sort of an economic
way, was that problem. I then continued this work at CIBA, and then at Syntex.
01:20:00The very first publication we published from Syntex was an extension of
this. It was a very elegant, practical conversion of
androgens to estrogens. I would say in the context of elegance and novelty,
these were some of the best papers published at Syntex. It all started from an
extension of my graduate student days. In a way, the circle I began at Wisconsin
hasn't yet been completed because I can never seem to leave steroids, even
though I've worked in many other fields. Even when I work on methodological
problems (mass spectrometry, optical methods, NMR), somehow I always pick
steroids as examples. I would say that these two years at Wisconsin were
extraordinarily fortunate ones.
I also wish to return to my knee because at that time my knee got progressively
worse. The first year at Wisconsin I could still ride a bicycle. At the end of
the second, I couldn't anymore, because I couldn't bend my knee very much. That
was the first of numerous operations I had. By that time it was a serious biopsy
01:21:00because they didn't know what was wrong. That was the first physician who
suspected I might have a tubercular infection in the knee joint, but they could
not diagnose it. I have to give you that health aspect because it gradually
deteriorated over the years. By the time I was at Wayne it had gotten so bad I
was living with 24 aspirins a day, and then it had to be operated on. They told
me that my knee would have to be permanently fused or I would have to be in a
brace the rest of my days. As you will see in a moment, that led me back to
Mexico, because it's amazing how my knee had professional ramifications.
I finished at Wisconsin, and I had an open offer at Ciba to come back as a Ph.D.
chemist. I didn't even look for a job. It was just before my twenty-second
birthday when I got my Ph.D. in the fall of 1945. I had my Ph.D., a wife, and I
01:22:00was moving back to Ciba. I worked there for four years. All together I worked
for Ciba for five years. During those four years I had a lot of autonomy in the
context that I immediately became a senior chemist. I had my own lab, and I had
one, and later on two, women assistants. The last one was Frances Hoffman, who
became the Director of Laboratories at Columbia.
STURCHIO: She also worked with Stork at Harvard.
DJERASSI: When she left Mt. Holyoke she worked with me. When I went to Mexico I
handed her over to Gilbert Stork. The three of us laughed about this. She was
01:23:00just a gold mine. She even moved with him from Harvard to Columbia. I indicated
that in the "Steroid Autobiography" article. When I
was at Ciba I was asked to work on medicinal compounds, antihistamines, and
other things which interested me. They gave me enough freedom so that I could
also work on another project on the side, which was the continuation of this
estrogen problem. It was also of some interest to people at Ciba. No one at Ciba
in Switzerland or in Summit was working on that. They were working on sex
hormones, and the cortisone explosion occurred in 1948. Then, Ciba really moved
into high gear on cortisone, as did many others. A couple of senior chemists at
Summit worked on this, but mostly it was done in Switzerland. I wanted to work
on it and was told "No."
That is when I realized that when I went back to Ciba I already knew I wanted to
01:24:00go into academia. Again I was in a great hurry. I wasn't going to start as an
instructor, assistant professor, and so on. I was going to work in industry and
publish and get a reputation, and then start out as a tenured professor. It was
a very naive attitude considering that only one organic chemist at that time had
managed to make the transition from industry to academia, and that was John
Sheehan, who went from Merck to MIT. No other person had achieved this. Don Cram
eventually did it, but he was a junior chemist at Merck for one year. Then he
went to Harvard, and from Harvard to UCLA. But, John Sheehan really did it at
that time. If you think about it now, there are any number of people who did it.
Josef Fried did it at the University of Chicago, Earl Muetterties went from Du
Pont to Cornell. Now there are quite a number of industrial chemists who have
done this. But, that was my view. By the time I had spent four years at Ciba, I
had published a fair number of papers. I was very interested in publishing and
01:25:00establishing a scientific career. Then I applied for academic jobs and had
absolutely no luck. At that time I felt somewhat bitter, but now, of course,
it's amusing. The one who turned me down in the crudest way was Iowa State. I
forgot the man's name, but that was the time when George Hammond was there. I
don't mean that Hammond was involved. He was one of the more junior faculty. I
came with eight different projects I wanted to work on, and yet the man was a
critic, and, I thought, rather out of hand.
[END OF TAPE, SIDE 3]
DJERASSI: I suddenly realized that my problem of getting an academic job was
that I didn't have someone pushing me. You really needed to have a mentor;
01:26:00everyone had one. I had not done any postdoctoral work, and Wilds was not a
mentor at all. By that time he had some major incidents of psychiatric
depression which affected him the rest of his life. It was a terrible tragedy,
because only in the last ten years people discovered that he could have been
treated with lithium. That would have completely changed him if he could have
taken it at that time. If you look at his publications, they literally stop
within three or four years after I left. He was not a mentor in that context. Of
course, he would have written a beautiful letter of recommendation, but people
didn't write to him and say, "Whom have you got to recommend?", which is what
they would have asked Johnson.
So I had to do it on my own, and I literally had no mentor. The person with whom
I compared notes along these lines, and who had to go through exactly the same
system, was Derek Barton. He got his Ph.D. the same way, and had to start in
some third-rate institution--Birkbeck College. He had to basically do it on his
01:27:00own in that respect, and that was really true of me. Then, after four years at
Ciba I realized I was not having much luck in industry. I was getting very
impatient at Ciba because I felt it was a very comfortable life, and if I stayed
there for one or two more years, I would stay there the rest of my days in just
that way, becoming a more senior chemist, because I had no administrative
ambition at that time.
At that stage there was a little underground group of chemists who were older
than I, but had the same position of senior chemist. There was a small group at
Hoffman-LaRoche, Schering, Schering--Bloomfield, and myself. We used to meet
about once a month in restaurants in New York, and in New Jersey. We used to
have a marvelous time, bitching about our respective employers, and bitching in
an amused sort of way, telling tales about our directors' research. All of them
01:28:00were of course foreign-operated companies. These people were all American, (and
I considered myself American at this point) and all these "goddamn Europeans",
the Swiss, the Germans, trying to tell us how to run this place. All the heads
were foreigners. There were these marvelous jokes. Dominic Papa, a Greek
American at Schering, was a wonderful person. Martin Rubin was at Schering, and
there were several people at Roche, and we kept talking.
I knew relatively little of what Martin Rubin was doing on the side, but he
apparently was doing all kinds of things because eventually he quit and became a
professor at Georgetown in clinical analytical chemistry. One day he called me
and said, "Carl, you're going to get a telephone call from someone, a man named
01:29:00Solins who is the head of Chemical Specialties. Chemical Specialties is just an
office for a company called Syntex in Mexico. Don't just reject him out of hand.
He is going to try to offer you a job." I said, "Who is Syntex? I never heard of
them." Then he started telling me about it. It's a Mexican company that's
working with steroid hormones, diosgenin, of course I knew a little about
diosgenin, but I knew nothing about Syntex. I had never heard the name. At that
time it was a twelve hour trip from New Jersey to Mexico. I just sort of laughed.
A few weeks later the man called me. By that time I had published a fair amount
about steroids and it coincided with their decision at Syntex to establish a
research laboratory. By now they were doing well enough to have a small research
laboratory in Mexico City and the main emphasis was going to be to try to
develop the synthesis of cortisone from diosgenin. In fact, I later developed a
synthesis of cortisones for Syntex. Remember, that was exactly the problem I
01:30:00wanted to work on at Ciba and could not. I didn't even see a conflict of
interest because it wasn't as if I was using confidential Ciba information for
Syntex. In fact, it was the other way around: they didn't want me to work on it.
He said, "Look, why don't you come on an all expenses paid trip with no
obligations." I had never been to Mexico and I was interested in traveling. I
had not been out of the United States since I arrived in 1939.
So, I went there, and even made a side trip to Havana. When I arrived I met
George Rosenkranz, and in one day I realized that this was the place. Either
they were as well equipped as Ciba, or were prepared to get things that I did
not have at Ciba. This meant my first infrared machine, because Ciba and
Wisconsin had no infrared machines. In fact, the only serious organic infrared
01:31:00work at that time was done at Sloan-Kettering by Dobriner. I said, "Would you
buy an infrared machine? Would you pay for my staying at Sloan-Kettering for a
couple of weeks learning how to operate it after I quit Ciba, and before I would
join you?" We agreed completely about my publication requirement because I
really wanted to see everything published. They offered me the equivalent of
eight assistants, which was just spectacular for me. I had two assistants at
Ciba, and this was what I wanted, to have more hands in the lab. I had no
preconceived notions about how long I would stay. I thought, "Here would be
opportunity to work on exactly the problem I wanted." I was interested in
learning another language, Mexico City was beautiful, and my wife was perfectly
willing to go. I remember speaking about it to Gilbert Stork, who thought I was
stark raving mad. Then I remember writing to Wilds at Wisconsin who basically
01:32:00told me to think about what I was doing, because at that time moving to Mexico
to do scientific research sounded totally absurd.
That was really the greatest decision that I made because in those two years in
a way I got more work done than I've ever done since. When you consider the
competitive nature of the problems, particularly the cortisone one, it was
extraordinary. Our competitors were Woodward at Harvard, Fieser at Harvard, E.
R. H. Jones and his group at Manchester and Oxford, the entire ETH group in
Zurich, and all the pharmaceutical companies, including Merck and Ciba. That was
just spectacular. No one had ever heard of Mexico Syntex, and there we would
just come out with one paper after another and beat the entire competition. That
was done with people who were extraordinarily excited. We trained the Mexicans
ourselves. It was the only time in my life where I did research on a shift
01:33:00basis. We did it in two shifts--we'd work from eight to five and a group would
work from four to midnight. The reactions could be just carried over. By God, we
really did this for three or four months. It was just magnificent.
THACKRAY: What was Martin Rubin's connection with Syntex?
DJERASSI: He was a good friend of Irving Sollins. I don't really know how
otherwise, because he had nothing to do really with Syntex in Mexico. It might
be interesting to talk to him, he's a professor at Georgetown. I have lost
complete touch with him over a couple of decades, so he may remember things that
THACKRAY: But the word was sort of out, at least in your little informal group,
that you were looking?
DJERASSI: Yes. Although I think he did it because they were looking for someone
01:34:00with experience in the steroid field and said, "Here's a guy who knows this and
is working on interesting problems." The estrogen thing was also of interest to
them. At that time Syntex only made progesterone and testosterone, and now they
were interested in getting an entire line of hormones. That really worked
extraordinarily well. I went there in October of 1949. By 1950 I would be
corresponding with Sir Robert Robinson. [audio recording is missing or damaged]
Even though I never worked with him, I almost established a sort of son-father
relationship with him over the years. We've been very close friends. Then we
published the cortisone paper, which of course got us a lot of publicity.
That's when I got my first and only academic offer. Wayne State University
offered me a tenured associate professorship, with the understanding that if I
did well in a year or two I'd become a full professor. I decided to take them up
on this, and again people thought I was crazy. By that time they said, "How
could you leave Syntex?" This was only two years after people said I was crazy
to go to Mexico. You know, we had [audio resumes] staff, excellent equipment and
a wonderful situation there, and then to go to dumpy Detroit under conditions
which turned out to be physically horrible. I inherited the space of H. C.
01:35:00Brown. When Herbert and I talked about this, we were in the same situation, it
was the only academic job he was ever offered in the beginning, so he took it.
He worked in the same lousy lab that I was inheriting. He claimed that he
actually installed the plumbing with his own hands. It was an old high school
building that was built in the last century. It was absolutely the worst
chemical facility in the United States. What Wayne had was a wonderfully
supportive administration. They had an excellent stock room that was free, so I
didn't have to buy chemicals or equipment out of any research grants. There was
limited space; so you couldn't blame them. Since I was the most recent person, I
got the poorest space. I didn't complain about this, because I went into this
with completely open eyes. I figured the University was supporting me
financially, paying me what at that time was the going salary, giving me space,
01:36:00giving me an open stockroom, and I would continue to consult with Syntex.
I wrote to lots of places for financial support and really got it--NIH grants,
NSF, various companies, Merck, Lilly, you name it. I got money very quickly, and
the students were very interested. It was more the blue collar student group who
worked. They were the type of person I was at Ciba and at Brooklyn Poly. There
was no monkey business, because they were interested in working and getting
their Ph.D. I managed to get a number of postdoctoral fellows and I just started
running instantaneously on some new projects. I was promoted to full professor
in one or two years, so when I was twenty-nine I had a tenured professorship. To
that extent, what I predicted would happen in a way did happen.
01:37:00Before you ask another question I want to complete the story of my knee. My knee
got progressively worse, and Detroit was a bad place for that. From the winter
humidity and cold, I was in great pain. No one could diagnose it. If it had been
tuberculosis, they would have done something about it, but they couldn't. Then I
had to have another biopsy. I went to the hospital and they said, "Listen, you
can never return except in braces. You'll have to sleep in a brace. I think you
have something related to a tubercular infection, but my recommendation is
either a brace, or have your knee fused." After wearing a brace for maybe three
weeks or so, I had had it. I thought it would be impossible to do this the rest
of my life, so I said, "I'll have a knee fusion." The only reason I had resisted
it was because I already talked to some people who had this, and they said,
"You'll have to be in a body cast for six months. This whole business is truly
irrevocable." And, then this physician said, "Actually, the best surgeon in this
01:38:00field is practicing in Mexico City. This man probably does more operations like
this in one week than we do in a year." I said, "Who is this man?" (This was in
1957.) He gave me his name--Dr. Juan Farril.
Just at this time Syntex had been sold to an American investment company. They
wanted to expand research and Syntex wanted me to come back. I suddenly said,
"All right, I'll come back with a leave of absence from Wayne because I'm having
an operation there, provided you do the following things: After about six
months, when I'm able to travel, you pay my trip back to Detroit every eight
weeks so that I can spend one week out of every eight here. You pay my long
distance telephone calls twice a week." That cost hundreds of dollars because I
was talking to the seventeen or eighteen members of my research group, for
01:39:00several hours twice a week. Literally, I went to Mexico for medical reasons.
By that time I was very unhappy about the laboratory housing at Wayne. The
university finally agreed to raise money to build a new building, and I said,
"I'll be back from Mexico City the minute you build that building." I managed to
continue research perfectly well along these lines, but it was that knee that
really got me back to Mexico. By that time our research was very productive
because I continued to do work at Wayne, and at the same time I was publishing
things at Syntex. There was also a research group from the University of Mexico.
Then Dr. Johnson got in touch with me just about two months before I was due to
01:40:00return to Wayne with two years leave of absence and with the building completed.
[audio recording is missing or damaged] He asked if I would be interested in
coming to Wisconsin as a full professor. That of course was very attractive to
me. I had a great deal of institutional loyalty and good feeling about Wayne,
but I was also realistic in that Wayne did the same thing for me that Mexico
did. It was an institution where no one expected to get outstanding research
done. Seeing it happen I got much more visibility than would have been possible
otherwise. By that time I had won the ACS Award in Pure Chemistry and things
like that. Wayne deserved this, but I think Wayne had probably done what it
could do for me. I realized that if I would simply go back I'd be the best
organic chemist at Wayne, but it was no Wisconsin or Harvard or other
institution. I was certainly willing to listen. Just about that time he
[Johnson] was asked by Stanford to come here as chairman of the department. Even
before we proceeded very far on the Wisconsin thing, he asked me if I would be
interested instead to come with him to Stanford as a professor. He suggested
that if this did not work out, then I could go to Wisconsin.
So, I came here on just one trip, meeting Terman, who was the Provost. Terman
had decided he wanted to buy himself a new chemistry department, and he was very
interested in getting the two of us, Johnson as chairman, and me as full
professor. We both decided that we'd have our own conditions. They were very
different ones, of course, and it was a fairly expensive proposition. Again,
they wanted to give us some lab space in an old building. I said, "Bill this is
out of the question, I've done this for five years, or maybe seven in a way with
the two years leave of absence from Wayne." I was not going to start all over
again, unless they built me a new building. I had a new building waiting for me
at Wayne, so I said, "A new building or nothing." Johnson said the same thing.
It took Terman a couple of weeks to come up with the money and plans for this
particular building. We both decided to accept the jobs, with the understanding
that we were not physically prepared to appear until the building was completed.
Both of us accepted our jobs in 1959, and I announced to Wayne that I would not
return. We took a leave of absence from Stanford for one year, Johnson at
Wisconsin, and I in Mexico. I decided to stay another year in Mexico while the
building here was being built. My research group meanwhile moved from Wayne to
here in temporary quarters and worked here. So that was the completion of the
move to Stanford.
THACKRAY: There's a lot of territory there and we need to go back and see how
the pieces fit.
DJERASSI: Well, I thought this is one question you would ask because I'm now
here at Stanford and this building is in place. The important thing about this
building was that for the first and only time in my scientific career I had
space that was designed to my specifications. The same thing applied to Johnson.
If you look at my lab, you'll see that it is very different from any other lab.
I am a great believer in one large lab. I wanted to have everyone in there. But
Johnson was very different. Apparently he wanted to have smaller labs. So you
see we have everything exactly the way we wanted to have it here, and that was
an important plus.
THACKRAY: I want to go back and ask you about when you were going to Wayne and
your view of leaving Syntex, or why this academic ambition? What was the point?
DJERASSI: That's an interesting question. I'm now working on a second novel. In
this second novel there is a story within a story which I have converted into a
short story that has just been accepted for publication. It deals with the
driving ambition of a scientist. It's not really me, but a cell biologist. But I
can't help but think that part of me is in there.
When I was in Mexico I got divorced from my first wife. It actually was a very
friendly divorce. I promptly got married to my second wife, who was American,
and we were married for twenty-six years. My second wife became the mother of my
two children. I have no children from my first marriage. When I had that offer,
she adjusted very readily to Mexican life. She was completely American, but
learned Spanish the way I did and enjoyed it. Then we made a list with the
questions you asked, "Why Wayne? Why not stay?" We literally made the list of
pros and cons, and there was no question that the pros for staying in Mexico
were overwhelming. We had a house, and servants, the standard of living was far
superior, and it was a pleasant place at that time. I certainly got paid much
more by comparison. I got $10,000 instead of four or five thousand at Wayne.
These were the going wages. I don't mean I was underpaid in any concept.
The key thing was that by that time I really suffered from culture shock in
Mexico. The inherent dishonesty of the system, the continued bribery, the fact
that you could get away with anything if you paid for it was more than I could
put up with indefinitely. I could not see my children being brought up that way.
It was also the system where the gulf between the "haves" and the "have-nots"
was broadening. At that time I predicted absolutely what is happening to Mexico
now--that the the country will go completely to pot. I really believe that the
country, in terms of a social and economic revolution, will be in a perilous
situation. I simply could not see myself continuing. I would say there were two
possibilities. Either I could become completely callous and totally ignore the
incredible poverty and discrimination of 90% of the people, or I could become an
outright Che Guevara Marxist. I could see no other resolution to it, and I did
not want to become either one. I was not a Mexican, so therefore I didn't feel
it was my function to go and change the course of the country. The country is
very nationalistic, and an outsider would never be tolerated the way one would
in this country. You could come here, as an outsider and become, let's say, a
Henry Kissinger. This is inconceivable in Mexico. Under the circumstances, I
clearly saw my Mexican stay only as an in between thing and secondly, the
academic ambition I felt was an overriding thing.
The people at Syntex accepted this, my wife accepted it, I accepted it, and I
had to get out of my system the idea that I wanted to be a professor. I felt
that if this was a wrong decision, I better find it out at age twenty-nine. If
it's wrong, I can do anything I want to, including going back to Syntex or
anywhere else. But if I waited and spent the rest of my days there and said, "I
wish I had become a professor," I would always be unhappy. No one else offered
me a job. Again, I figured exactly the same thing I did when I went to Newark
Junior College--all I have to do is get into the system. I did it to get into
the system. I really did very well, and I knew that I would do well. By that
time I had really established a reputation. I hadn't won any award because I was
still totally outside the system. If I had done the cortisone work in an
American university at that age (which was about twenty-nine), I would figure I
might as well have kept the job I had and get along with it. I still had all
options open, and I could have returned to Mexico, or gone somewhere else. I
think in the end it turned out to be the best decision I could have made.
Probably much better than if I had gone to the Harvards, Yales or Columbias,
because by doing that same work which was first class at Wayne, it got much more
visibility than it would have gotten anywhere else. So, I think it did turn out
to be a very good decision.
THACKRAY: When you say, "get the opportunity out of your system about being an
academic," what put the idea in your system? Initially you were going to be a physician?
DJERASSI: I would say that by the time that I even seriously thought about
medical school, (getting back to Paul de Kruif, in a way) I really visualized it
as research medicine, and not at all like my parents' practical medicine.
Remember, the setting was that I'm a Central European. I really have to stay in
a German, Austrian, Jewish setting, in which the Herr Professor thing was
invariably much more than just a Herr Doctor. I had to put it in that context.
I'm sure there was this cultural imprint. I don't know if it was deliberate, but
I'm sure it was there. Of course, by the time I was at Ciba and at Syntex, there
was no doubt about being in the United States, and I felt I was as good as
anyone in my own field and in academia. The academics certainly looked down on
the people in industry, so we felt like second-class citizens in that respect.
To give you an example, to my knowledge maybe one industrial person has won an
ACS award. In the National Academy, even now, there are a half dozen industrial
chemists and over one hundred academics. This is nonsense. That is not the ratio
of excellence in science. You still have that class structure, and I think I
catered to that. You had a total freedom to work whenever you wanted to which I
could never justify to myself in industry, even when I ran an industrial
research organization. I would have felt a responsibility to the owners, whoever
they are, even if they're just a mass of people. Your function is not just
assimilation of knowledge, but also the conversion to something useful and
economically viable. Incidentally, that also attracted me enormously. That is
why, in a way, I have been a professional bigamist for the rest of my life. I
hadn't realized that that bigamy really started in the early 1950s, as a sort of
unconscious bigamy. By 1968 I was a full-fledged polygamist because I sort of
ran a couple of companies, and at the same time I was doing everything at Stanford.
THACKRAY: If we call the model you're now characterizing the polygamy model,
then your life actually seemed to exemplify the American ideal.
DJERASSI: When I did this I didn't know of a single example that in fact was
able to work in both worlds at the same time in a way which I did. Almost every
senior chemistry professor was a consultant someplace. It was a totally
different thing than having a corporate job as vice-president or president of a
public corporation, with all the legal, fiscal, fiduciary, intellectual, and
every other responsibility, and at the same time doing all the teaching and all
the research that I must do. In that context I was doing it at a time before it
became fashionable. Now it's quite common, even more so outside of chemistry
such as engineering and biotechnology. But at that time, that was certainly not
the case. To that extent the Stanford setting with the industrial park was
probably the ideal place. If I had been in another institution it probably would
not have been comfortable. It was also with Syntex that I could convince the
corporation to move here because I was here. You don't usually have a
corporation moving for reasons like that. That was true of maybe every company I
would get involved in. I had them next door so that they were just five minutes away.
THACKRAY: In 1960, when you had your Stanford position and were vice-president
for research at Syntex, were you half-time at Stanford?
DJERASSI: Full-time. I was full-time at Stanford until 1968. [audio resumes]
When I came to Stanford in 1960, physically (in 1959, legally), it was
full-time. I was planning that I would simply just stay in a consulting capacity
with Syntex. I was at that time already a member of the Board of Directors, one
of the three key people there. They asked that I continue in an executive
function without having any real duties. In other words, like a minister in a
government without portfolio. So I was the vice-president of Syntex
01:41:00Laboratories, which as the American entity had nothing but an office in New York.
[END OF TAPE, SIDE 4]
DJERASSI: The only difference was that I felt I had a legal and an input
responsibility that was much larger than people otherwise. I literally hired
every person in research. In fact, most of them were my former graduate students
or postdoctoral fellows, and that was true of many persons there. Bowers, who is
now the chief executive officer, was a postdoctoral fellow of mine. John Zderic,
and every person in research was hired by me.
01:42:00But as I moved up I made what turned out to be a very important recommendation
for Syntex. It was a five or six million dollar company, but it was clear to us
that it would grow, and it should get out of the steroid mold. I said, "The time
has come. The area to get really involved in is molecular biology. Stanford is
the place." This is one of the top places in the world. You had Lederberg and
Kornberg, two Nobel prize winners. Lederberg became a good friend of mine; in
fact he came to Mexico on behalf of the university to talk to me. In the end we
published a great deal together.
I suggested that Syntex should establish a small research institute in molecular
biology here at the Stanford Industrial Park. It would do nothing but research
01:43:00in the field, with Lederberg as the scientific director and myself as the
corporate head. We needed someone to be legally responsible, and I was willing
to do that. Of course, the two of us would do it part-time. Lederberg would then
hire the people because they would need people in a completely different
discipline from those I knew. We would operate with a few senior scientists, and
otherwise use postdoctoral fellows. We established what was the Syntex Institute
for Molecular Biology, which was founded in 1961 or so. We were ahead of
everyone. It was years before the Roche Institute, or anyone else, worked in
this area. It was a purely academic affair. We did it in a small building here
on the Stanford Industrial Park.
One or two years later, the decision was made that the time had come for Syntex
to establish itself as a pharmaceutical company in the United States, which it
01:44:00had not been up to that time. It was trying to sell drugs itself under its own
name, which at that stage it had only done in Mexico. Otherwise, it was a
supplier to all the major companies. It was a research and manufacturing
organization, not a selling one. For that they hired an experienced
pharmaceutical executive whose name I don't remember. He came from the East in
1960 or so, and became one of the directors. There were seven or eight directors
at that time. He was the only newcomers on the Board of Directors. Then, the
question was where to establish a U.S. marketing organization. He who came from
the East said, "Of course, the only place you could do it was within fifty miles
of New York. That's where they all are, in New Jersey or New York. The only
others, like Eli Lilly, and Abbott, are mavericks for historical reasons. New
Jersey was the center of activity." Of course he's right. All these foreign
01:45:00companies came subsequently. I said, "We want to be different. We don't want to
be like all the other pharmaceutical companies. Let us be the only ones on the
West Coast." There was no one except Cutter Laboratory, which was not very
research intensive when placed in the context of what we considered ourselves.
"This is our lifeblood. We're going to move into other areas. One third of the
membership of the National Academy is on the West Coast, and we have some of the
top universities. All these people who graduate from here are going to stay
here, even though many of them are not Californians, Oregonians, or
Washingtonians. We have an absolutely premier crop which will make it a much
better place. You could do it next to a university or next to medical school,
but you can't do this in every place." The other people on the board were
totally neutral. One was an investment banker, and one was a lawyer. They knew
nothing about Stanford, and had never been here. They had no good or bad
feelings. There were these two extremes, the one man who suggested the East
01:46:00Coast, and I who suggested the West Coast and said, "Look, let's have meetings
to analyze it." We did, and all voted in favor of coming to Stanford. I said,
"Let's do it next to a major university campus, let's do it next to a major
international airport, let's do it in an interesting intellectual as well as
critical climate." When we finished, there was only one place which fit that
bill, and that happened to be Stanford. Berkeley was possible, but at that time
Berkeley didn't have a very hospitable climate. When I spoke with Terman about
it, he said, "My God if only you could bring a biologically oriented place
here." All of the others were electronic, and computer and publishing places.
Syntex was the very first one, and he said it would make everything possible. So
that sold them, and that's when Syntex decided to do it. The man who otherwise
01:47:00was going to become the president quit. Dr. Zaffaroni therefore said, "All
right, I'll move out of science and I'll become the operating head." He moved up
here and that's when we established Syntex here. To establish it when we didn't
have employees meant that we really had to move most of the research here,
because the support now would become the support of the FDA-dependent operations.
Eventually, we incorporated the Institute of Molecular Biology as just a new
division of Syntex. Up until then I had just served as vice-president. I did not
even have an office there, but I went there on my lunch breaks or for breakfast
01:48:00until 1968. In 1968 (maybe a couple of years earlier), Dr. Zaffaroni suggested
that I should be the executive vice-president. But still, not having an office,
and being full-time here, it was just a question of title. In 1968 he suddenly
quit as president of the company and president of Syntex Research and formed his
own company, Alza. Then, he recommended that I should become president of Syntex
Research, which of course at that time had a much larger size because of the
medical and biological research. I would take over his office and everything
else. That's when I decided to go on half-time at Stanford. In fact, I've been
01:49:00doing it ever since. For certainly the next ten years I felt that I still was
more full-time than most of my Stanford colleagues because I was more jealous of
my time and had no involvement with any other industrial place. I had exactly
the same research group that I did, my teaching role did not change over the
years, nor did it really interfere with University service.
But, then I became involved with one or two more companies, and the bigamy
converted to polygamy. One was called Synvar, which was a joint venture of
Syntex and Varian. There was a colleague of mine at Stanford, Bill Little, who
did work in superconductivity. He felt that he needed a certain type of organic
molecule, which had never been synthesized, but which would be an organic
superconductor at room temperature which if true would completely revolutionize
01:50:00things like transistors, power transmission and the like. He had approached
Varian about this, but of course the problem was a chemical problem, and he came
to me. I said, "Let's form a joint company between Syntex and Varian and just
dedicate ourselves to that." They accepted that, and formed a fifty-fifty
venture which they called "Synvar". I was chairman of the board which consisted
of four people, two from Varian and two from Syntex. The four member board was
Ed Ginzton, chairman of the board at Varian and Martin Packard, who was a vice
president at Varian. On our side, it was myself and Alex Zaffaroni (he had not
left Syntex at that time). We established that I hired all the people. We then
01:51:00decided not only to work on organic superconductivity but in developing an idea
of Harden McConnell's of the Stanford Chemistry department who really worked on
stable free radicals. He was interested in stable free radicals in the context
of spin labelling, which was his invention. You might say we felt that this
might be of biological interest. The reason I'm telling you this (and I'm almost
finished), is that it turned out in a very short while that indeed this was an
interesting way to develop a completely new approach to chemical detection of
drug abuse. Synvar developed a method of screening urine samples for opiates
during the Vietnam War. The Army actually bought the whole thing, and overnight
Synvar became an operating company with a diagnostic tool to sell. Then we
01:52:00discovered that there already was a company named Synvar in Delaware that made
synthetic varnishes, and we had to change the name to Syva. That's how that came
about. We eventually dropped the superconductivity work and became a complete
diagnostic enterprise which then worked on new chemical approaches. It became a
highly successful company. By that time I had left Syntex, but I was retained as
chairman of the board of Syva, and the chief executive officer until Syntex
bought out Varian's fifty percent in 1976 or so. At that time the company had
become a hundred million dollar company from literally nothing eight years
earlier. That was one enterprise.
Then there was Zoecon. It was also formed in 1968, the same year as Syva, and I
served as President out of my office at Syntex. Syva took over the facilities of
01:53:00the Syntex Institute of Molecular Biology, but we kept the same space. Zoecon
bought another building close by here in the Stanford Industrial Park, and I
also ran that. By 1972 it was obvious to me that it was not realistic for me to
be a de facto full-time professor and also chief executive officer at three
different places--Syntex Research, Zoecon, and Syva. We had all envisioned that
I would launch these companies, then I would leave them to be on the board of
directors, and we'd hire a full-time President.
By now Syntex was such a big place, it was a couple hundred million dollar
company already, and I had now become the administrator there. I said, "Why not
01:54:00quit and start all over again and see if I can do something once more." So I
literally resigned from Syntex, which dumbfounded most people. In a way, it
really dumbfounded me. In terms of executive functions, my principal job would
be that of President of Zoecon, I moved my office to Zoecon, because I lost my
Syntex office, and took over Zoecon as President and Chairman of the Board. Four
involvements became three, but it's still polygamy, or trigamy anyway. I got
involved in a couple of other companies. One was Cetus, a biotechnology company.
01:55:00I became their first outside director when it was still a partnership. I've been
involved with Cetus ever since, but only as a director.
THACKRAY: Just while we're on this area, can you say a little more about Zoecon?
DJERASSI: Actually, I might as well mention my last involvement, and that's why
I couldn't meet you at two o'clock. Then I became involved with another company,
Teknowledge, which is a company that deals with industrial applications of
computer artificial intelligence. That's an outcome of my cooperation with
Joshua Lederberg and Ed Feigenbaum, who was chairman of our computer science
department here and one of the powerhouses in American AI [artificial
intelligence]. He formed that company about four years ago, and asked me to
serve as the first outside director. Now there are two of them, Burt Richter,
01:56:00who is a director of SLAC [Stanford Linear Accelerator Center] and myself, and
we had a major board meeting today. These are basically my industrial
THACKRAY: That was all a digression from Zoecon?
DJERASSI: Yes, my only current industrial involvement is with Zoecon,
Teknowledge, and Cetus.
THACKRAY: Is Zoecon a little company, or a large one?
DJERASSI: Zoecon is now about a hundred million dollar company. Zoecon was
founded in 1968. It came out of Syntex, and then became a completely independent
01:57:00company with Syntex giving away its interest to its own stockholders through a
stock dividend. It remained an independent company until 1977, when Zoecon was
probably a thirty million dollar company. It was acquired by Occidental
Petroleum as an independent unit, with an offering to our stockholders which
they accepted. It was a very generous offer financially for the stockholders.
Then I reported directly to the President of Occidental, and that was for five
years. Then five years later Occidental carried out this major acquisition of
City Service. It was the first major merger of these large petroleum companies,
and assumed an enormous debt load. [interruption]
01:58:00DJERASSI: I was talking about Zoecon. When Occidental carried out the
acquisition of City Service it decided to liquidate a number of things that it
owned. Zoecon was a very good example of what was sold at a profit. Since we
were a very independent operation, operating and reporting directly to the
President of Occidental, they let us sell ourselves. They really did not know
that much about Zoecon's business, and that was really my main job for close to
a year. We established some priorities, and decided that we would probably want
to be owned by a foreign company (who had no activities in this field in the
U.S.) rather than a domestic one. Preferably, it would be a pharmaceutical
01:59:00company since it would understand the long lead times and the type of research
we were doing, which was primarily new approaches to insect control, insect
endocrinology, hormones peptides, and pheromones. We made a list, and eventually
one of our top candidates, Sandoz, one of the three big Swiss pharmaceutical
companies, bought Zoecon from Occidental. This was the completion of a circle
for me. I had started out my professional industrial career with one Swiss
company and ended up with another one. That occurred in 1982 or 1983. Zoecon is
now a wholly owned part of Sandoz. They integrated their American pest control
activities, of perhaps $20 million, into Zoecon. They didn't change the name,
and the entire Sandoz operation in the ag-chemical field is now called Zoecon in
02:00:00Palo Alto. Their operation was in San Diego. It was very complementary because
they worked on biological control methods while we work more on the hormonal
aspects. I was president and chairman of the board until 1983, the year after we
were acquired. Then I resigned as President and I am now chairman of the board
at Zoecon, and on the board at Cetus and Teknowledge.
THACKRAY: I want to ask you about two or three collateral areas to all of this.
One is, when you were moving between Wayne State, Syntex, and Stanford
02:01:00initially, and working out what you were doing, did you have any role model in mind?
DJERASSI: No, never. I don't think I've ever had a role model in mind.
THACKRAY: Certainly, it is hard to think about a parallel career.
DJERASSI: It's strange, but no one has asked me that question. I didn't even
think of it. I always felt that I was in many respects an outsider and a
maverick in American chemical circles. I really had no particular role to play
in the American Chemical Society. I do not enjoy the huge ACS meetings very
02:02:00much, and I've just not gone to them for quite a number of years. I go primarily
to smaller meetings such as the Gordon Conferences.
The areas of research that I'm working on have never been, in spite of the
visibility I've had, high priority, fashionable ones in American organic
chemistry. American organic chemistry (and I'm really generalizing now) has gone
through only two phases in my professional lifetime. The first is the physical
organic, mechanistic phase, which was for the first twenty to twenty-five years
of my life. Basically, if I just use names, it was the Winstein-Bartlett phase.
(Of course, it included a lot of people, but I'm using them as an example.) It
was very, very fashionable. I'm not using fashionable in a pejorative context,
either, but it was really descriptive. In America it played a very important
role. The second phase would be the synthetic phase. The synthetic phase, which
02:03:00is now particularly the discovery of new reagents, was the super-macho Woodward
type organic syntheses of fifty different steps for extremely complicated
molecules. He discovered very few reagents, and there are others who discovered
many of the reagents. E. J. Corey was an example. This is where American organic
chemistry played an enormous role, and has also been very fashionable. Natural
products chemistry never became fashionable, even when we had a reasonable
number of natural products chemists. It is just nothing by comparison to what
used to be represented, or when natural products chemistry was represented in
Japan or in Germany or even England. In that context, my methodological research
with its mass spectrometry and chiroptical methods never really won a lot of
02:04:00Brownie points in the American prestige system. So, I would say that in that
context my own interests were invariably outside the American establishment.
You know, I personally give an enormous number of lectures: IUPAC lectures,
Plenary lectures, and other major lectures. I have only been invited once to
talk at an ACS organic symposium. That was in 1956 or '57. That's 30 years ago!
Therefore, I really think that there are no particular role models to pick in
this case, given the area of science that happens to interest me and that I
focused on. I don't even know whether I've ever been invited to an ACS meeting
02:05:00to talk at one of the symposia, other than the ones where I won some award.
Then, they had to invite me because you have to give an award lecture. Since I
give so many lectures and go to many places, the fact that I don't even remember
whether I was ever invited ought to tell something about it because if such
invitations happened, they happened so rarely. That I think is a complicated
answer to your question about role models.
THACKRAY: That's very interesting. Can you speculate a little on why the
methodological questions and natural products should be comparatively lacking in prestige?
DJERASSI: The natural products one I think I can, because American
02:06:00science...maybe it's unfair to say science, so let me stick with chemistry...has
not had a real historical role. That's true in any discipline. Prior to World
War I, there was no significant American chemistry. Between the wars it started
growing up and flourished dramatically from the Second World War on. You can
really only say that it started in the '30s. Organic chemistry in America was
just not very interesting before then. Yet the historical works in organic
chemistry are in fact natural products chemistry, from every standpoint,
including synthesis. The really, truly American organic chemistry is physical
02:07:00organic chemistry. This first original American contribution did not originate
out of the English one. Even though historically the English one started earlier
(Lapworth, Robinson and Ingold, the active people in this area) Hammett at
Columbia, Bartlett, and Winstein, were really not disciples of any of the
English schools. There is no German school of mechanism, and French chemistry
has had no impact on American chemistry. They were educated partly in Germany
and partly in England, but most of the physical organic chemists were native
products. So that became the native American chemistry and flourished.
Strangely enough, the relationship of the top American chemists in organic
chemistry was not a European one. There were no major works in Germany. Sure
there were people like Fieser who spent a year in Europe. We don't have that in
02:08:00that context here. This is my explanation for why natural products chemistry was
a foreign chemistry, so to speak. Even though some people like Roger Adams did
some work, it really was piddling compared to the things he really did. Adams,
the father of American organic chemistry, you might say, did some work on
natural products. But if he had never done anything on that he would still be a
very important figure in American organic chemistry. His disciples really didn't
become natural products chemists. That's my explanation for that.
Now, that is where I think I'm very fortunate because pedagogically, I know of
no area where organic chemistry can be taught better than in natural product
02:09:00chemistry. All bets are off--you're dealing with an unknown compound where
you've got to use every help you possibly can to learn something about it. In
physical organic chemistry it's exactly the other way around. You know exactly
what you're looking for, and while you may be exceedingly good you are doing a
very narrow area in terms of very narrow techniques. There is an enormous area
of chemistry you don't have to use in order to make dramatic advances in this.
Experimentally and otherwise you become a very important but narrow specialist.
In the days before x-ray crystallography, before that enormous impact of
physical methods occurred, it was the other way around. Yet because we wanted
help from everything, a natural product chemist was more receptive than anyone
else. Why is it that all the advances in UV, IR, NMR, chiroptical methods, and
mass spectrometry, entered into organic chemistry invariably through the natural
product chemist? In fact, in the process it killed the traditional structure
02:10:00elucidation natural products chemistry. Now, it is so sophisticated that we
don't do any more chemistry with the natural products. We're isolating new
compounds, and we can establish their structure, but we don't do any chemistry
with them. Therefore, these have become pedagogically uninteresting now. This
happened to the same people. I'm one of the key people in that, and am really
also responsible for that death. I don't really feel badly about this, but in a
way I think it's unfortunate because now the pedagogic function of natural
product chemistry is very different. It is not really chemical any more, but has
become much more biosynthetic, and related to biological function. The ultimate
compliment of methodology is that after a person develops it, no one remembers
who did it. You ask any organic chemist who is responsible for infrared and
02:11:00there's not one who can tell you. And you ask them about UV, and they can't tell
you that. And you ask them about chiroptical methods, and they can't tell you
that. And they probably can't tell you about mass spectrometry, and very few
know who won the Nobel Prize for NMR. It was Bloch and Purcell. The number of
modern organic chemists who know this is zilch. The ultimate compliment is that
it becomes part and parcel of your vocabulary, but the grammarians who created
the vocabulary are not the ones who get to be known. It's the poets who are the
ultimate ones, and fashions in poetry and literature change. So that's understandable.
THACKRAY: Robert Merton has a phrase for this in science. In general, he talks
about "incorporation by obliteration."
DJERASSI: It's a very good term. That's exactly what it is.
[END OF TAPE, SIDE 5]
02:12:00DJERASSI: Merton's term applies exactly to methodological research, and what I'm
telling you about natural products is, to a certain extent, historical. Now it's
also an obliteration for different reasons, because the chemical components of
natural products chemistry are to a large extent being decimated.
THACKRAY: Your own career has moved so much between areas. Obviously, it would
be vain to expect many such virtuoso performances, but does it seem to you to be
a viable mix? Can you see that as a pattern that ought to be much more common,
02:13:00or are there really blocks and barriers and costs?
DJERASSI: I think the cost you pay is actually a very big one. I think you have
to recognize that as well, and make your own personal decision. One of the great
advantages as to why I've been able to do that to a certain extent is not only
because of my psychological make-up, but I probably have somewhere on the order
of a ten year advantage over many of my colleagues. Point number one is that I
started so much earlier, but this has nothing to do with brilliance or
intelligence or anything else. It was luck. In many respects you can say it was
luck--having to come from Europe when I did, having a bad knee when other people
had to go the Army. A few years can make a lot of difference. Secondly, as I
02:14:00said, I was a very well organized person. I always used to work at lunchtime. If
you added up the lunch hours over the years, you can pick up another year that
way. The fact of the matter is that I was able to do more. The manner in which I
arrived is very different from the way that other people arrived. I'm not a
procrastinator, but a very well organized person. You pay an enormous price for
that. My door is not just open, and I'm not sitting waiting for people to pop
in. As you can see, Buchs [chairman of the University of Geneva chemistry
department who just knocked on the door] is a person I'm very fond of, and yet I
can only say hello to him and tell him goodbye. Well, that's the price you pay.
Over the years it is a cumulative price, all the way around.
I'm accessible to my students, but if they want to see me they have to ask to
see me. These are the prices you pay. I don't teach any chemistry now. I teach
human biology, and I teach undergraduates. A few people wonder why I do it now
02:15:00because I have always taught graduate courses. Because, to tell you honestly, I
would be bored stiff if I had to teach chemistry. I don't mean doing it, but
teaching it, because it is lecturing and people just sit there and take notes.
There's very little discussion in any organic chemistry teaching, by definition.
And they're doing it for a particular purpose--undergraduates because they want
to go to medical school or become chem majors, and graduate students because
they already know what they want to do. So, you just impart knowledge, period.
I'm interested in challenging people into original thought, in the context of
real discussion, debates, about public policy issues, and the impact that
science has on everyday life. This is what I'm talking about. This is why I'm
interested in giving public talks and writing on topics like this. I'm
interested in societal problems.
02:16:00When I talk about about professional and intellectual polygamy, I said the
reason I also have given up certain things, such as Syntex, and the executive
function at Zoecon (except the Board function), is because I'm getting involved
in some other things. I feel like I'd like to lead one more life. I'd like to
leave a cultural imprint on society, rather than just a technological benefit.
I've established an art foundation, and an artists' colony, where I spend a fair
amount of time now. There are fifty artists a year who live there--not just
visual artists, but writers, composers, choreographers, and so on. For instance,
music is something that always interested me. I used to play the cello, and it
was always classical music. Through the composers that come to our place, and
some of them are major ones, I've become very much interested in contemporary
music including that made with computer synthesizers. I've become interested in
02:17:00writing. I've written an enormous amount about science, but started writing
poetry about two years ago. I really got interested in a very serious way. I've
been submitting it to poetry journals, and some has been accepted. I discovered,
to my utter amazement, that another chemist who has gone through exactly the
same line is Roald Hoffmann at Cornell. We've been exchanging poetry, and he may
actually come here as a visiting artist to the artists' foundation. His feeling
about poetry is exactly the same as mine. He interacts with very well known
I started to write fiction on airplanes. I'm not publishing the first book
because there are too many autobiographical aspects in it. It is fiction, and
there are a number of things I made up, but I'm sure if I publish it in my own
name, people won't believe me. They're prepared to believe all of it as being
02:18:00true and applying to me. I don't want them to believe that, because there are
some things in there which in fact didn't happen to be me, or they happen to be
me way down in a very hidden cell.
The second book I'm writing now much more answers the question you asked about
role models. This is a novel about a concept--why is it that people in certain
creative areas, such as writers, composers, actors, playwrights, and scientists,
are completely dependent in their self-image on the opinion of others. Why is it
that peer evaluation is so important to them? Why is it that a great musician
will not be convinced he is a great musician without critics or other musicians
02:19:00saying that? Why is it that a great writer depends on book reviews, and why is
it important to have them? Can you be a great scientist if other scientists do
not believe so? The answer is no, you cannot. In fact, in science it's even
worse, because you can't even publish. If you're a great poet and other people
don't believe it, you can publish your own poetry in a vanity press. You can't
publish and create a new scientific journal. People will laugh you out of the
business, no one will read it, and you'd be considered a crackpot. I decided to
write a novel on this, with the lead character actually being a writer, not a
scientist. He gets so preoccupied with this that in the end all he wants to do
is read his own obituary, because he feels that's when he will finally know what
people really feel about him. Of course he wants to read it--this is really what
I'm writing about. Since I also want to write about scientists, he's a very
02:20:00famous writer. Norman Mailer is an interesting example of this because, he is a
very well known, highly prolific, highly successful writer. Yet, every book of
his that gets reviewed has both good and bad reviews. There are people who damn
him and others who admire him. You don't find everyone saying he is the greatest
writer, yet he's very responsive to that. He seems to have all the accolades
that you would want, all the awards, except the Literature Nobel Prize, and yet
he's not satisfied. The question is, why is it important for him to know what
the others are saying about him? This writer's mind was to make the case also
about scientists. He does it by writing a book about that problem in science,
and that is a short story that you may have heard me say is in the book. The one
I'm writing about science is a story within a story.
In a way, that aspect of intellectual life has come to interest me more and
more. To the extent that I'm giving up on the operational aspect of industrial
02:21:00activities now I'm interested in doing things in the context of the arts. It's
interesting to see what Bader will say in the interview, because Bader is also
interested in art. I can give you a copy of this--it's a catalog of the San
Francisco exhibition that's now under way in which three [of my Klee] paintings
were stolen and just found by the police. What I'm giving you is really an essay
that I wrote because it tells you something about what I believe about art
collecting and the philanthropic and societal function of an art collector. It
is an area that has interested me for quite a while. I cannot differentiate that
part of my life from the other one. There's one man, Jean-Marie Lehn, who is
02:22:00probably the best contemporary French organic chemist. He is also interested in
art and literature and such. His inaugural lectures as a new professor at the
College de France talked about art and chemistry. Roald Hoffmann is very much of
an intellectual in the cultural context, and very knowledgeable in the area.
Duilio Arigoni in Switzerland is another such person. He is very knowledgeable
about art, even though he doesn't write about it. I predict one of these days he will.
02:23:00THACKRAY: Let me take you to another link in all of this talk, about Stanford as
an archetype of a new university or the all-American university in the full
flowering of the American version of what a university should be. I was
interested in its degree of success. If you go back to the time when Syntex
moved here, and the time of Hewlett-Packard, and all those sorts of things, I
02:24:00would like to ask you to talk about this success in incubating things and how
Stanford has changed, if at all, over time in this regard.
DJERASSI: I discovered that I am now the oldest professor in the chemistry
department in terms of service in this department, which is a very ironic thing.
I came here in 1960, which is related to your question. The Stanford chemistry
department is certainly changing. Stanford bought itself a new chemistry
department. Johnson and I came first, and we were here a year, when the next
02:25:00person to come was Paul Flory. The next one after him was Henry Taube. I'm
giving you examples of two people who became Nobel Prize winners. They were
internationally known at the the time we got them here. Others who came are
Harden McConnell, Eugene van Tamelen, Jim Collman, Dick Zare, and now John Ross,
our chairman of the department. All of them, with the exception of Collman and
Zare, were people who were in their early or middle fifties when they came here.
We have young faculty members and we have those who have already retired and
become professors emeriti, like Johnson and Flory. Taube is older than I, but he
came several years later. I think what you're saying is probably only true in
02:26:00science and in technological and practical oriented areas.
To return to your question about Stanford, there's a real cultural difference
between the West and the Midwest, and particularly the East. I was on the
Visiting Committee of the Harvard School of Public Health for the last three
years, and I could see what is going on there. There's really culturally quite a
difference between the two institutions. But in the humanities and social
02:27:00sciences I think that becomes really a different situation. I'm not sure whether
Stanford can be the right model for that. I don't really know of a West coast
institution that could fit into that model. If you think that the future of
mankind is all in science, technology, and related areas, like quantitative
economics, then you made the point. If you think it's more than that, then I'm
not really convinced that...in fact, I think this is a good thing. I don't think
any institution should be the ideal model.
THACKRAY: I'm thinking very much on the scientific and technical side, and the
ability to attract talent and forge these sorts of links that your own career
02:28:00exemplifies. In this connection at Stanford the main person one always hears of
is Terman. What else is there to the story?
DJERASSI: Unsurpassed luck in terms of timing. I think it was done at exactly
the right time, both in terms of the social history of this country and in terms
of economic history. That's also more important in certain key developments in
certain industrial areas such as electrical engineering. Remember, it was no
coincidence that he was an electrical engineer. If he had been a biologist, it
02:29:00would have been an absolute dismal failure. If we tried to do the same thing by
let's say doing it in the biological sciences, we would not have gotten to first
base at that time. In the industrial context, the biotechnology explosion in the
industrial context has been not only not an unmitigated success but maybe even a
failure to a certain extent. These have not led to the Hewlett-Packards and IBMs
and Xeroxes, and with one or two exceptions will not, in my opinion. They will
have an incredible impact on the discipline, but it will happen on everyone,
like welding had an incredible impact on everything from modern automobiles to
you name it. The real beneficiaries of the knowledge from the biotechnology
explosion, will be the big companies, whether they're pharmaceutical companies
or others. It will be the big ones and not the little ones. There will be one or
two exceptions, but not all what people thought it would be.
02:30:00THACKRAY: Because of the need for capital investments?
DJERASSI: Capital investments and lead time. The lead times are on the order of
a decade or two. I know a great deal about this. Genentech and Cetus, the two
best-financed biotechnology companies, have $160-$200 million each, and that is
by no means enough for them to become independent financial successes. Their
stocks sell at a price earnings multiple, which would require their future
discounted for the next X years. This is not the case in computer and electronic
things, so in that context it was a very much the right time. The other one is
02:31:00that it was a private university. It was able to be more flexible in policy
matters than a state university could, and it had all this land. I think that
had a great deal to do with it. Terman, whom I knew very well and liked very
much, was never a person whom I'd use as my personal model. I would never want
to be a person like that. He was a workaholic, which in some respects I suppose
I am too. But, I'm a workaholic in the context of hours per day. These hours
involve a lot of opera, a lot of theater, a lot of reading. Actually, I don't
find any of my colleagues there. This is another thing. I have yet to find
anyone from my department in any of the places in San Francisco where I spend
02:32:00most of my social life. If you talk to them about museums and shows, you're
talking about another world. Terman was even worse than that. Terman literally
lived, breathed, and did nothing but the thing that interested him. I don't know
whether he ever read a book of literature. I don't mean he was an illiterate,
but I really think it absolutely did not interest him. He was impressed to a
considerable extent by peripheral things. Membership in the National Academy of
Sciences was a very important prestige confirmation for him...if the new
candidate was about to get elected, that was good for him, and if he didn't make
02:33:00it, how come? He also had a real sense of smelling where things should be done,
and which areas were worth pursuing. He did very well in this, and I enjoyed him
very much. No one in the humanities did. As far as they were concerned he was
absolutely of no use. There's no question that Stanford, by comparison to its
competence in the sciences, just hasn't matched up in the humanities. Yet, we're
not a technical school. One of the beautiful things about this place is that we
can really collaborate with people close by because everyone lives in the same
place. There are some real advantages.
02:34:00THACKRAY: Where is the momentum now in those sorts of university and outside
linkages? Is it just the "electronic revolution, part three," as it were?
DJERASSI: Well, the Center for Integrated Systems is a very impressive thing
that they're doing here. And if you think about the revolution in artificial
intelligence, you know there are basically three centers in the United States:
the MIT area, Carnegie-Mellon, and Stanford. There are half a dozen or more
companies in each place, and they're just mushrooming up. Another example is the
biotechnology one, and there's a lot of stuff going on here too. They're
establishing a new center on molecular genetics here with Paul Berg as head. I
think we're doing very well in this, but it still is in these areas. I don't see
02:35:00any dramatic thing happening in the social sciences, particularly in the humanities.
THACKRAY: To jump across now, not to Stanford, but to chemistry as a field
nationally. A lot of the terminologies and the rhetorics of today in some way
obscure chemistry even as chemistry becomes more important in certain ways.
DJERASSI: Well, becomes more important in what sense?
THACKRAY: For instance, in the way that molecular biology is becoming
increasingly very sophisticated chemistry...
02:36:00DJERASSI: You're using the argument, and I think in some respects a correct one
(but it's also maybe a little bit of sophism), Why is it that half the Nobel
Prizes in terms of areas (at least for the last twenty or thirty years, because
you want to start far enough back) are in pure chemistry--inorganic, physical,
something like that? Not one Nobel Prize winner in chemistry twenty years ago
was not known to every other chemist. If you said," Woodward won the Nobel
Prize, or Robinson", you'd say, "Gee, he won it this year" or something like
02:37:00that. Do you know that there was a Nobel Prize won in chemistry, in the last ten
years (I'll give the most dramatic example), where not a single person in our
department ever heard of the person? I don't mean he didn't deserve the Nobel
Prize, but can you imagine that in an institution like Stanford University,
there was not one person who knew who Peter Mitchell was, and that he won the
I remember I didn't. My secretary came in and said, "Do you know who won the
Nobel Prize in chemistry?" I said, "No", and she said, "I just heard it on the
radio. Peter Mitchell." And I said, "Who? You must have misheard it." I bumped
into the head of our department, John Brauman, and I said, "John, who's Peter
Mitchell?" He said, "Who are you talking about?" I said, "He won the Nobel
Prize." I mean, it went on like this. Cyril Grob, who was the chairman of the
University of Basel chemistry department happened to visit me when that was
announced and I said, "Do you know who Peter Mitchell is?" He said, "I never
02:38:00heard of him." I then learned from Gilbert Stork that Woodward didn't know who
Peter Mitchell was. I'm just giving you an example of this phenomenon. Peter
Mitchell turned out to be rather important in the areas of biochemistry and
biophysics. The fact of the matter is when chemists never heard of him, then
you're talking about using exactly the argument you did. Sure it's chemistry,
but it isn't chemistry. I think chemistry has become something very different. I
think it's become a discipline in terms of methodology. You cannot do any of
these other things without knowing chemistry, and you have to be a chemist to do
that. I think in that respect chemistry is becoming very much a pure science as
compared to what physics was at one time and biology is now.
If I had to pick it all over again, I would not at this stage become a
"chemist". If I could live my life over again, and I was quite sure I wanted to
become a scientist again, I might even major in chemistry, almost certainly as
02:39:00an undergraduate. But I wouldn't get my Ph.D. in chemistry, and I certainly
wouldn't want to go into the traditional chemical line, academic or otherwise.
Maybe I'm being somewhat critical, and even derogatory, but I find chemists as a
group exceedingly narrow minded when it comes to their field. That's certainly
true in our department, even though they're first class chemists. Academic
chemists have more clear-cut definitions of what they call chemistry than anyone
else. They would not buy your argument in the context of grantsmanship, and they
will certainly not buy your argument in the context of filling academic
positions in search committees. Peter Mitchell would never have gotten a job in
this place. I'm using him as an extreme example, but there are quite a number of
02:40:00others. I think in part deservedly so, because that's not our function. Most
chemistry departments function at the undergraduate level totally, and some even
in graduate levels, have become one of training, an indispensable function. You
need to do it, but you don't have to become a chemist for that. So chemistry is
important, and yet it is not in 1985, in that context. That's why I would say
that I would not want to start all over again.
The other thing is there's an incredible amount to know. I'm a lucky person in
the time that I was born, because I would say every one of our faculty members
at Stanford, without exception, would flunk the beginning entrance exam that we
are giving now to our students in the other disciplines. That is, my physical
chemistry colleagues, without exception, would flunk the organic chemistry
entrance exam. I could not possibly now pass the one that they have to pass in
02:41:00inorganic and physical.
[END OF TAPE, SIDE 6]
That doesn't mean that I couldn't if I really sat down and studied, but I really
would have to study like I was a student because of the number of advances that
have happened. Chemistry, more than most other disciplines, is not only a
discipline of important principles, but at the same time of incredible minutiae,
especially in organic chemistry. You can know all the broad principles, but if
you want to be a synthetic chemist, and unless you have a superb memory in the
context of really knowing all the reagents and tricks, you are nobody. You can
explain organic chemistry, but you can't do it. That is not really true to that
extent in a lot of other disciplines. To the extent that it is true, I think
this is probably the greatest disaster about contemporary science. Right in the
02:42:00beginning you have to become a narrow specialist to be really able to cope with
it. It used to be that you became a specialist afterwards, and could learn a
reasonable amount of organic chemistry. In even talking about organic chemistry,
let alone chemistry, I would say there are entire areas of organic chemistry
that our graduate students know absolutely nothing about, and don't even get any
I'll give you two particular examples here in this department--polymer chemistry
and heterocyclic chemistry. There doesn't happen to be anyone in our department
who is working on polymers. They don't get any of this in any course unless they
read about it themselves. Nothing! No one in our place is right now working on
heterocyclic chemistry. Ask them about the Bischler-Napieralski reaction--not
that I think it is all that important--I think most graduate students will ask,
"How do you spell it?", although some may still remember it from some
02:43:00undergraduate organic course. There are other institutions in which it's the
other way around. They teach them a great deal about heterocyclic chemistry and
teach them nothing about metallo-organic chemistry. It's perfectly
understandable because there's not enough time, and not enough faculty members.
It's very sad. It means that already at this stage these people are not getting
their Ph.D. in organic chemistry, but they're getting it in some very select
discipline. Therefore, you can see that at the present time, scientific and
renaissance people just completely don't exist, while you did have people like
that thirty, forty years ago, and certainly 100 years ago.
THACKRAY: It's been a remorseless trend since the Renaissance. I was amused that
in the early nineteenth century correspondence of John Herschel and William
02:44:00Whewell, John Herschel complains to Whewell that "no man can know the whole of
one science any more," and that's in the 1830s!
We've left a great deal uncovered, but I'm just wondering what...
DJERASSI: Well, there is another question that you haven't got there, but I
think you should put it down. Whenever I get into these lectures for awards or
anything like that, it comes out that this man Djerassi has published a thousand
and some papers. People will usually laugh, gasp, and sometimes make a comment
that is both admiring, envious, and critical all at the same time. One of the
02:45:00things is, "Why do this, and how is it possible?" Someone goes through the
idiotic calculation that means he has written every two or four weeks since he
was born. And they all conclude that I couldn't have written a paper for the
first ten years of my life and so it is more than that. But in fact, the
question is, "Why do that?" Not how did you do it, because how is very simple.
You don't have to wait until you've written a thousand papers, or even a hundred
papers--it's just competence and style and method that is very different. I
write books that way too, whether it's fiction or whether it's chemical books. I
don't like to write it until I'm really quite clear about it in my mind. Then I
sit down, usually in the morning, and I write straight through. I don't let
anyone interrupt me. I don't do it here but at home. The most important thing is
when I get stuck on something I jump over it and write the rest of it, so by the
time I have something I feel much better about it. It's easier to have holes in
it than to stare at a piece of paper, for an hour or two without anything
02:46:00happening. But that's trivial, that's only a question of style. The second
reason I see now in the context of writing fiction. Style really doesn't count
at all in science. In fact, you could write a scientific paper literally in
totally incorrect and faulty English. Many Japanese preliminary communications
in Tetrahedron have nouns that don't match the verbs, the tenses are wrong, and
everything else. If the science is good you don't pay any attention to it
because most scientific papers in general never get read twice. If one really
realizes this, it is read once, and it either becomes part of your knowledge
base and you believe the person's experimental evidence, or you repeat it, or
you store it as intellectual junk. Therefore you don't really go back. It is
pleasant to read a nice paper, but just because it's written in good style
doesn't get one any Brownie points. Therefore you find that writing a paper
doesn't require as much as there would be in fiction or poetry or something like
02:47:00that, where you may sometimes massage a line for days, and therefore you can
produce more in that respect.
But the question is why, rather than how. I think I realized this way back. Not
because of a publish or perish syndrome, because for that you don't have to
publish a thousand papers. You could do it with a hundred or two hundred papers.
Rather, I would have found it impossible to do this by myself. One clearly must
have quite a number of research collaborators. Now, I have never had huge
groups; I've had an amazingly steady group since the 1950s, when I was at Wayne.
I always had between 17 and 20 people, neither more nor less. I did this by
having one person per bench. I don't have them doubling up and they occupy every
bench. That's a fair number of people, and hundreds of people have worked for me
02:48:00over the years. This does not count the people in industry, where of course
there may have been a larger number of people. I'm only talking about academic
work. Here I felt totally different from Woodward, who was exactly the opposite.
You owe it to the students and those who collaborate on work with you, for their
own professional advancement. First of all, if you persuaded them to work on a
project, you thought at that time that it was worth doing, and they thought it
was worth spending a year or X years on it. Presumably, if they completed it, it
was good enough to see published. Because at the time it isn't important to your
own career anymore, is not good enough. You should do one of two things. Either
you let them publish it themselves and you have nothing to do with it, or you do
it with them. What you should not do is not do it with them and just report this
in lecture. Woodward was the ultimate example. Woodward eventually had about 100
people working on vitamin B12. He paid them a great deal of oral credit, but
there's no paper on the synthesis of vitamin B12. I mean, there are only some
02:49:00erratic papers. The same thing is true of chlorophyll, where there is a very
major paper which lists names in an acknowledgment, but the [individual] papers
never appeared. They were beautifully written papers,
exceedingly elegantly written, and stylish. But, I really consider it partly
immoral, in that context. Now I went to exactly the opposite extreme, because
that's one extreme and there are many in between. If you think that the thing is
worth finishing under your own tutelage, then presumably it's still worth
publishing and you feel enthusiastic about it. All you have to do is wait for a
year, and in fact you don't feel that way about it anymore. Even some of the
things that I really felt were really fantastic, such as the cortisone
synthesis--when I read it now I think, "Gee, I wouldn't write about that now. It
looks so straightforward." You either write it when you're enthusiastic about it
and still think it's amazing, or you don't write it at all. Then it just becomes
a research report. Therefore, I've always made it a policy to write up the thing
02:50:00as I finish it or ask the student to write up the first draft while he or she is
still here and writing it up. Once you do it, you finish it and send it out.
That is basically why I'm putting it this way.
I have a very different opinion of what a publication is. It is really to pay
back to the scientific pool of knowledge from which we borrowed so much, because
that's all that science is really--stepping on someone else's shoulders. Put it
back in there, and let other people select what they need or what they do not
need. Some of the things that you yourself think are trivial may sometimes be
exactly the trivial things that someone else needs to jump on very quickly. In
my opinion it's better to have more of this than less. Now I may change my mind,
because so much gets published that just trying to absorb it is a different
proposition. But, to decide to publish only the sort of thing that will make you
famous--because not all papers are the greatest papers--how do you do that?
02:51:00Therefore, I just pay no attention to this. If it's something worth doing, then
I'll write it up while it's still worth writing. If not, then I'll never write
it. I found that almost invariably things that I procrastinate on never get
published. That's a question that you don't have on there, but since it's asked
often enough, I thought I'd bring it up.
THACKRAY: I have just a couple of more questions. One is about your students and
the people who worked with you. You said a group of seventeen or twenty. How
many of those were typically pre-doc and post-doc?
DJERASSI: It varied. I would say until about the middle to late 1970s it was
about half and half. Up until the middle 1960s it was perhaps two thirds
02:52:00graduate and one third post-doctorate. Now it's the other way around. I would
say it's two thirds post-doctorate and one third graduate students. The reasons
for that are probably several. One is that a lot of post-doctoral fellows who
were involved in the 1970s came here with their own money. They were on
sabbatical leave, or something like that. That's one thing where there is a
tendency to say, "Yes. Why not? It doesn't cost you." But that's not true. It
cost you something both in terms of money and in terms of time. The second one
is what I told you about the discipline, that it is fashionable. There is little
doubt that in the context of postdoctoral and graduate students, the type of
02:53:00research I do is less fashionable to undergraduates who now learn their
chemistry from people who've all been brought up with the last ten or fifteen
years of chemistry, where chemistry was not natural products chemistry and
structure elucidation. They may not even know anything about it, and don't teach
it at all or are not involved anymore on the undergraduate level so they know
nothing about this. A number of them have heard about thirty-step syntheses, and
think it's more important, more glamorous and of course more interesting. That,
I think, is one reason. The other one is the overall reduction in graduate
students in all American institutions, including Stanford. This year, we made a
deliberate effort to offer more fellowships and throw a wider net. Literally,
the number of graduate students that we've had in our department in the last
02:54:00five or six years is fewer than we've ever had before while the number of
applicants for postdoctoral fellowships has not changed.
THACKRAY: The number of people who've been through your lab must number in the
hundreds. Can you generalize at all about...
DJERASSI: Yes, and close to forty different countries.
THACKRAY: ...what sorts of places they've gone on to. The majority are American,
are they not?
DJERASSI: In terms of undergraduate, I would say that 95% probably are
[American], but post-doctoral fellows came from forty different countries all
over the world. I would say the majority have ended... well there I can't
generalize, because these are foreign people who came from academic jobs.
02:55:00THACKRAY: Most of the people in your lab have gone into industry?
DJERASSI: Yes, well there again, that changed, but I would say the larger number
went into industry because of the connection that I had with Syntex. Literally
every group leader Zoecon employed, which was quite a number of people at one
time, were my students. maybe six or eight were at Hoffman-LaRoche, some at
Ciba--they were going all over. Now it's a much broader industrial context, but
02:56:00there quite a number going into academics too.
THACKRAY: Have there been students who've had careers that have paralleled your
own in terms of who've used you as a role model, moving from an industrial
position to an academic position and back again? Does that happen very much?
DJERASSI: I don't remember whether anyone has done this. I'm trying to think of
Fishman, who may be an example. Jack Fishman is a Professor at Rockefeller
University, and he used to be a senior person in the steroid field at Sloan
Kettering. Then, he went to Montifiore. I just recently saw that he won a major
02:57:00award. He's one of these persons who has worked on opium antagonists, and did
this in an industrial context. This is in New York. This was an enterprise of
his own, in addition to being a chemist in clinical work at Rockefeller. That
may be one example. Jim Kutney, a man who got his Ph.D. and is a professor at
the University of British Columbia, was interested in doing some things on the
side. I don't know...I know very few people who've done this in chemistry. There
is much more of that in other areas. I can't think of someone in chemistry right now.
02:58:00THACKRAY: As a last question, can you name some of your most outstanding
students, and post-docs?
DJERASSI: I'm almost reluctant to do it, because the people that I might omit.
I'll give you an example. I went to a small IUPAC mass spectrometry conference
02:59:00around 1978 or '79 at the Weizmann Institute. Ten years earlier, maybe in Berlin
in the same area, there were eight plenary lectures. Of the eight plenary
lectures, aside from me, five of them were former students or post-doctoral
fellows. I'm using this as an example. I don't know if it's true anymore, but
just let's take that area. There are people like Catherine Fenselau, the woman
who won the Garvan Medal last year. She is a full professor at Hopkins, and got
her Ph.D. with me on mass spectrometry. That's the field she decided to go into
after joining the faculty of the Hopkins medical school. She's a professor of
chemistry in the department of pharmacology and head of the mass spectrometry
committee. She is the editor of one of the journals in the field.
Another person, Dudley Williams at Cambridge University, is a member of the
03:00:00Royal Society. He has had offers of full professorships at California and
Geneva, but he decided to stay in Cambridge because he loves Cambridge. He's won
several awards and medals. As another example, Herbert Budzikiewicz, who is a
full professor at the University of Cologne, is one of the top-notch
spectroscopists in Germany. I picked this person to make an example in that
context. I went to the IUPAC international natural products conference two years
ago in North Africa. It turns out that the head organizer in South Africa was
03:01:00the Vice-President of the Council of Scientific Research, and a former
postdoctoral fellow of mine. He organized a part of it just for alumni from my
laboratory. There must have been about twenty people who were from all over.
Again it turned out that about 1/3 or 1/4 of all the plenary lectures were
people who had worked here. Remember, they were not just South Africans, he was
the only South African.
Of the natural products people, Jim Kutney is the major example, because he
still works in natural products chemistry, and is one of the top Canadians in
the field. Bob Pettit, head of cancer research in Arizona, does quite a lot in
the natural products area. Most of them ended up in European, Japanese, and
03:02:00Australian places. This year I got two honorary degrees within about a month of
each other. One was from the University of Ghent, and the faculty member
responsible, G. Vandewalle, had spent a year here just like Armand Buchs. I was
really struck by what impact his stay in the 1960s at Stanford still had on him.
The same thing happened with Armand Buchs from Geneva, who came in 1958 or so,
and again in the 1970s.
Then there is a man from the University of Manitoba, where I just gave the
commencement lecture and decided to reminisce. What do you tell graduating
03:03:00students from a huge University (with twenty or thirty thousand students) that
they haven't already heard? Do you tell them to go out starry-eyed into this new
world and that sort of thing? Well they've heard all that. I thought I would
tell them something that I have done, drawing basically from my own experience.
What I really talked about is the color gray. If you think about it, gray is not
a political color. Political parties would be red, or green, brown or black, but
never a gray. And yet, gray should be the ultimate political color. Almost all
the problems that face society, perhaps all the problems that have faced modern
03:04:00society, are gray ones. To a very large extent they are caused by the success of
science and technology. We want black and white answers since we ask black and
white questions. But the problems are not black and white, and the answers are
never that. How do you handle this situation? Intrinsically, gray is a very
potent color. Sometimes it hides some of the blemishes. It can be elegant or it
can be gentle, but there is an element of uncertainty. How do you handle that?
How do you handle it in policy decisions? In a way these things preoccupy me
more these days.
THACKRAY: Do you have at least a partial list of students who have been in your lab?
03:05:00DJERASSI: My secretary has it. A few years ago, we had a big party. In fact, it
would have been even bigger but it was at a time when the ACS meeting in San
Francisco was switched at the last moment to Las Vegas. Then we were going to
have a party of a thousand publications. One of my brightest postdoctoral
fellows wrote to just about everyone that he could find. Some of them he
couldn't find because we're talking about four hundred people. About a hundred
and fifty or so came here, and it was quite a party. They had a thousand
balloons, and released them. [laughter] They did this at a ranch where I lived
at the time, about half an hour away from here. There should be a list of people
03:06:00to whom he wrote. Another way would be to check the list of notebooks and sample
boxes. If you look at spectral file sample boxes, there is an index, and you see
the last names because we have them alphabetically. Just looking at the sample
boxes would probably give the most up-to-date list, because he wrote to all
THACKRAY: We should get that in the final version. One final question, how old
are your children and what areas are their careers in?
DJERASSI: My daughter died, so I have only a son. They were within three years
of each other. My daughter was a painter, ceramic sculptor, and poet. She died
when she was 28 years old. My son is 32. He's a filmmaker. Neither one of them
03:07:00went into science. That was something I was actually very pleased about, because
I really didn't want this image, or competition with their father. I established
the artists' colony, not because enough money is being spent on good science or
on science beneficial to society, but because I think there's so much more money
being spent on that than on non-scientific or humanistic things particularly.
The fact that my children were not scientists and there is something about
03:08:00that--[unintelligible] My son's father-in-law is not a scientist, but very much
involved in science. Most everyone in science would know him, certainly most
anyone whole reads the English... Do you still read the English newspapers?
DJERASSI: It is Robert Maxwell. [laughter] That's my son's father-in-law.
THACKRAY: A newsworthy person, yes. Well, thank you very much indeed.
[END OF TAPE, SIDE 7]
03:09:00[audio recording is missing or damaged]
DJERASSI: You asked me about the interaction between industry and academia, and
how I felt about it. To a certain extent there may be other people, but I don't
know who they were, who led a very open polygamous life in that context. They
had a real responsibility with an industrial organization. In fact many of the
people who are consultants in fact don't even say for whom they're consulting.
This is where you really get the potential conflict of interest, the personal
ones with respect to how research grants are used, and what things are funded by
research grants. In my case as a corporate officer and director, everything was
in the annual reports and profit statements, including my hours. I felt like I
was being publicly undressed. I felt very strongly, at a time when people didn't
know what conflict of interest meant, that I did not want to have really even a
shadow of a doubt. So, starting in the late 1950's, before I came to Stanford, I
never accepted any financial support for my academic research from Syntex, or
for that matter from any other industrial company. I am very careful about not
trying to do any research here that in any way they were doing there.
It's interesting how my emphasis on totally separating industrial and research
activities almost...backfired is probably the wrong word, but it almost
happened...two years later. One day I got a letter from NIH. We had to fill out
an invention disclosure statement with each NIH grant at the end each year. If
you made any inventions they could be filed and go through the government
channels. I've always put down "no inventions" because it's a matter of absolute
principle. I've decided I don't want to file any patents while I'm in an
academic position. As far as I'm concerned, I publish it all. It's all in public
domain, and in that way it protects the public, because no one can get the
patent themselves and do what they want with it. Before that while I was
employed in industry, I had several hundred patents. Some of them were important
ones like the one on norethindrone. One day I got a
letter from NIH and some bureaucrat (literally a bureaucrat, not even an
administration official) said, "While you sign all these forms as 'no
invention', we've just noticed that you have filed as the inventor of fifty or
sixty patents in the period from 1957 to 1960. Since the day you arrived here,
you have not filed a single patent. This is impossible. How do you stop
inventing from one day to another?" The implication was that I was using the
grant in some surreptitious way, and they stopped payment of my grant until this
could be documented. Oh yes, he also said, "During that period of time you've
had quite a number of NIH supported publications." Of course, these were from
the university while I was on a leave of absence at Syntex. They took Johnson,
who volunteered to go through every one of the papers. By that time I had over
400 papers, where there was NIH support and he demonstrated that they had
nothing to do with the corresponding patents, and then dropped the whole
business. Basically, I did not want to believe that someone could separate one's
conflict of interest in that way. Do you know what the Berkeley Barb was or is?
DJERASSI: The Berkeley Barb is a muckraking, pompous, but also amusing newspaper
here. The ads for male and female companionship were among the most descriptive.
Of course, it is a thing I never read. One day a friend of mine called me up and
said, "Did you see what the Berkeley Barb wrote about you?" I said, "I didn't
see it." "I hate to tell you, but I'd probably better send it to you." It was an
article by a reporter who criticized what's happened in biotechnology--all these
biochemical professors who are working in universities, primarily with NIH
support, and then formed these companies and now are paper millionaires. He
didn't say they were paper millionaires, but of course they were that, and
exploiting the taxpayer. He then interviewed Chamberlain, a professor of
biochemistry at Berkeley, who actually got his Ph.D. at the Stanford Medical
School. He was also one of the ones who objected but, he said, "Yes, this
happens all the time. Take a look at Djerassi. Now, there's a man who with NIH
support discovered oral contraceptives and then as a result formed and now owns
Syntex. And he did it all with NIH funds." When I got this I wrote first to
Professor Chamberlain. I said, "I notice you were quoted as saying that, what is
your basis for saying that? I'd like you to know that the oral contraceptives
work was done in 1951, and the patent was issued in 1956. I did not come to
Stanford until 1959. At that time I was 100% an employee of Syntex. I had no
government support, and I had no academic job. You could have looked all this
up. It's all been published. Our own synthesis has been published. Furthermore,
I didn't get a cent for it. I only got $1 for it because when you're a full
employee in industry it's in your contract. I didn't feel cheated or anything,
and that's what I got paid. Whatever money I made, I didn't make out of any
inventions I made. How could he make that statement?" The man wrote back an
abject apology and said that he really didn't say that, but it was the reporter.
He said, "You're completely right, and I didn't say all this. I greatly admire
your work...blah, blah, blah." I said, "Well, in that case, would you please
write to the reporter and say that his report is wrong." He said I should do it,
and I said, "You do it, it was your interview, not mine. I expect to you write
and send me a carbon copy." So he sent me a carbon copy. With that carbon copy I
then wrote to the editor and said, "I have the carbon copy. I just want to tell
you the facts. In this case you didn't consult me, but you didn't have to
consult me because you could look it up in any public record. You can see the
facts are right there, so this not a question of my word against anyone else's
word. I expect a total and complete retraction, including all these letters. Not
one of these little ones, but the entire page. If you don't, I will sue you.
Because if you are right, I have no business being in academia. If there's one
thing I value, it's my reputation." I've gone absolutely out of my way to
protect that in all those years, long before people thought about conflict of
interest. This is the only time the Berkeley Barb ever published a total
retraction. They also introduced another correspondence, which of course I was
not familiar with, namely that of the reporter. He then wrote back to the
professor at Berkeley. The retraction from the reporter was that he completely
agreed with me. It was sloppy journalistic practice, and he should have checked
with me or the record. But, the statement by the Berkeley professor was so
precise there was no reason to do this. He claimed that was exactly what the
Berkeley professor said. Of course, I have no reason to disbelieve the reporter,
for there could be no way of making this up. I think that is very symptomatic of
one question to ask here. There's a reasonable amount of jealousy involved in
this. You have it also in a number of other cases in the biotechnology area. A
good example is actually Cohen and Boyer in the context of genetic engineering.
There's no doubt that these people did the first key experiment, and yet they've
never won the Nobel Prize, while other people did. They are unlikely to get it.
So it's really just that, because ostensibly they're correctly or incorrectly
benefitting enormously economically, which is completely beside the point if it
is true. But there's a great deal of jealousy along these lines. I've been
exposed to it and sensed it recently. You just have to shrug your shoulders, but
it is the price that you pay. I talked before about price and there is one thing
that I think you should not ignore. If you do it over again, there is one
question to ask, "Is it worthwhile doing this?" If you ask me, I think in the
end it is in my case, because the benefits in keeping me not only intellectually
aware of what's going on, but actually permitting me to do certain things which
otherwise I would not have done are sufficiently important to me that I could
say the price is worth paying. But I'm not sure that would be for anyone else.
THACKRAY: That's very interesting.
DJERASSI: Including the personal price you pay. I would say my second marriage
was a long one, but basically it went to pot because of the attention I paid to
my professional interests. So, it's also a price you wonder about.
THACKRAY: Well, thank you very much.
[END OF TAPE, SIDE 8]