Carl Djerassi was born in Vienna, Austria, on 29 October 1923, and, as a Jew, managed to escape Austria when the Nazis invaded in 1938. He subsequently received his education at Kenyon College (A.B. summa cum laude, 1942) and the University of Wisconsin (Ph.D., 1945). After four years as research chemist with CIBA Pharmaceutical Co. in Summit, New Jersey, he joined Syntex, S.A., in Mexico City in 1949 as associate director of chemical research. In 1952 he accepted a professorship of chemistry first at Wayne State University, and in 1959 at Stanford University where he became Prof. Emeritus in 2002. Concurrently with his academic positions, he also held various posts at Syntex during the period 1957-1972, including that of President of Syntex Research (1968-1972). In 1968, he helped found Zoecon Corporation, a company dedicated to developing novel approaches to insect control, serving as its chief executive officer until 1983. He continued until 1988 as chairman of the board of Zoecon (now a subsidiary of Novartis, Ltd).
Djerassi has published over twelve hundred articles and seven monographs dealing with the chemistry of natural products (steroids, alkaloids, antibiotics, lipids, and terpenoids), and with applications of physical measurements (notably optical rotatory dispersion, magnetic circular dichroism, and mass spectrometry) and computer artificial intelligence techniques to organic chemical problems. In medicinal chemistry he was associated with the initial developments in the fields of oral contraceptives (Norethindrone), antihistamines (Pyribenzamine) and topical corticosteroids (Synalar).
For the first synthesis of a steroid contraceptive, Djerassi received the National Medal of Science (1973), the first Wolf Prize in Chemistry (1978), and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (1978). He received the National Medal of Technology for his contributions in the insect control field (1991). The American Chemical Society honored him with its Award in Pure Chemistry (1958), Baekeland Medal (1959), Fritzsche Award (1960), Award for Creative Invention (1973), Award in the Chemistry of Contemporary Technological Problems (1983), Priestley Medal (1992), and the Willard Gibbs Medal (1997). Other recognitions include the American Institute of Chemists Freedman Foundation Patent Award (1970), its Chemical Pioneer Award (1973) as well as its Gold Medal (2004); the Society for Chemical Industry’s Perkin Medal (1975), the Bard Award in Medicine and Science (1983), the Roussel Prize (Paris) (1988), the Discoverer’s Award of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (1988), the Gustavus John Esselen Award for Chemistry in the Public Interest (1989), the first Award for the Industrial Application of Science (1990) from the National Academy of Sciences, the Nevada Medal (1992), the Thomson Gold Medal of the International Mass Spectrometry Society (1994), the Prince Mahidol Award (Thailand) in Medicine (1995), the Sovereign Fund Award (1996), the William Procter Prize for Scientific Achievement, Sigma Xi (1998), the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art (1999), the Othmer Gold Medal of the Chemical Heritage Foundation (2000), the Author’s Prize of the German Chemical Society (2001), the Erasmus Medal of the Academia Europaea (2003), the Sigillum magnum of the University of Bologna (2003), the Great Merit Cross of Germany (2003), the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Chemists (2004), the Serono Prize in Literature (Rome, 2005), and the Lichtenberg Medal of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences. In 2004, the Austrian Post Office issued a stamp in his honor. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and of its Institute of Medicine, as well as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, the German Academy of Natural Scientists (Leopoldina), the Academia Europeae, and the Mexican, Bulgarian, and Brazilian Academies of Sciences. The Royal Society of Chemistry (London) and the American Academy of Pharmaceutical Sciences elected him to honorary membership in 1968. He is the recipient of twenty honorary doctorates: National University of Mexico (1953); Kenyon College (1958); Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (1969); Worcester Polytechnic Institute (1972); Wayne State University (1974); Columbia University (1975); University of Uppsala (1977); Coe College (1978); University of Geneva (1978); University of Ghent (1985); University of Manitoba (1985); Adelphi University (1993); University of South Carolina (1995); University of Wisconsin (1995); Swiss Fed. Inst. Technol.-ETH (1995); University of Maryland-Baltimore County (1997), the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (1998); the University of Aberdeen (2000); Polytechnic University (NY) (2001); and Cambridge University (2005).
Starting in 1986, he has published numerous poems and short stories in literary magazines as well as a collection of short stories, The Futurist and Other Stories; five novels: Cantor's Dilemma, The Bourbaki Gambit, Marx, Deceased, Menachem’s Seed, and NO; two autobiographies, Steroids Made it Possible and The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas’ Horse; a poetry chapbook, The Clock Runs Backward; a collection of essays, From the Lab into the World: A Pill for People, Pets, and Bugs; and a memoir, This Man’s Pill: Reflections on the 50th birthday of the Pill.
Since 1997, he has focused on writing “science-in-theatre” plays. The first, AN IMMACULATE MISCONCEPTION, premiered at the 1998 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and was subsequently staged in London (New End Theatre in 1999 and Bridewell Theatre in 2002), San Francisco, New York (Primary Stages), Vienna , Cologne, Munich, Berlin, Sundsvall, Stockholm, Sofia, Geneva, Tokyo, Seoul, Los Angeles, Lisbon, Singapore and Detroit.The play has been translated into 11 languages and also published in book form in English, German, Spanish and Swedish. It was broadcast by BBC World Service in 2000 as “play of the week,” by the West German (WDR) and Swedish Radio in 2001, NPR in the USA in 2004, and Radio Prague in 2006. His second play, OXYGEN, co-authored with Roald Hoffmann, premiered in April 2001 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, at the Mainfranken Theater in Würzburg in Sept. 2001 through April 2002 (as well as in Munich, Leverkusen and Halle), at the Riverside Studios in London in Nov. 2001, and subsequently in Wellington, New Zealand, Korea (Pohang and Seoul), Tokyo, Toronto, Madison, WI, Columbus,OH, Ottawa, Bologna, Sofia, Glasgow, Porto, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo as well as many other German and American venues. Both the BBC and the WDR broadcast the play in Dec. 2001 around the centenary of the Nobel Prize—one of that play’s main themes. It has so far been translated into 10 languages. His third play, CALCULUS, dealing with the infamous Newton-Leibniz priority struggle, has already appeared in book form in English, German, and Italian. It opened in San Francisco (2003) and London (2004) with subsequent productions in 2005 in Dublin and Cambridge. A musical version (composed by Werner Schulze) opened in the Zurich Opera Studiobühne in May 2005. His first “non-scientific” play, “EGO,” premiered at the 2003 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and under the title “THREE ON A COUCH” in London (2004). A German translation of “EGO” was broadcast by the WDR in 2004, followed by its Austrian theatrical premiere in 2005 and a major German tour (Landgraf) in 2006 and 2007. The London premiere of his fifth play (“PHALLACY”) with a science vs. art theme occurred in 2005 with a German radio version broadcast in early 2006 by the WDR and the New York premiere in 2006 (Cherry Lane Theatre). His newest play, “TABOOS” opened in London in February 2006 and in German in Graz. In addition, he has started on a series of “pedagogic wordplays” to be used in schools in lieu of lectures. The first, “ICSI—Sex in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction” has been published in English, German, Chinese and Italian and performed in schools in the USA, Germany, Austria and Italy. The second, “NO,” written with Pierre Laszlo was published in 2003 in English, German and French.
Under the auspices of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, he founded an artists colony near Woodside, California, which provides residencies and studio space for approximately seventy artists per year. in the visual arts, literature, choreography, and music. Over 1500 artists have passed through that program since its inception. Djerassi and his third wife, the biographer Diane Middlebrook (Professor of English emerita at Stanford University who died in 2007), lived in Vienna, San Francisco and London. as well as the California ranch. Djerassi died on 29 January 2015 in San Francisco.