Carl Djerassi

Born: October 29, 1923 | Vienna, AT
Died: Friday, January 30, 2015 | San Francisco, CA, US
Photograph of Carl Djerassi

CHF Collections

The central portion of Carl Djerassi's interview covers his life as a student at the University of Wisconsin, followed by research work at Ciba, a faculty position at Wayne State University, and steroid research at Syntex in Mexico City. The interview continues with a move to Stanford University, and expands on Djerassi's dual positions in business and academe, concluding with personal views on writing scientific and non-scientific literature, interest in the arts, and a number of ways in which chemistry has changed during his career. 

The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.

			

Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0017
No. of pages: 64
Minutes: 193

Interview Sessions

31 July 1985
Stanford University

Abstract of Interview

In this interview Carl Djerassi begins with his early years in Vienna and Bulgaria, including his schooling at the American College in Sofia. This is followed by his immigration to the United States, with special emphasis on his college experiences at Newark Junior College, Tarkio College, and Kenyon College. The central portion of the interview considers Djerassi as a student at the University of Wisconsin, followed by research work at Ciba, a faculty position at Wayne State University, and steroid research at Syntex in Mexico City. The interview continues with a move to Stanford University, and expands on Djerassi's dual positions in business and academe, concluding with personal views on writing scientific and non-scientific literature, interest in the arts, and a number of ways in which chemistry has changed during his career. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1942 Kenyon College AB, summa cum laude Chemistry
1945 University of Wisconsin, Madison PhD Organic Chemistry

Professional Experience

Ciba Pharmaceutical Company

1942 to 1943
Junior Research Chemist
1945 to 1949
Research Chemist

Syntex S.A.

1949 to 1952
Associate Director of Chemical Research
1957 to 1964
Vice President for Research
1960 to 1972
Director
1964 to 1968
Executive Vice President, Syntex Research
1968 to 1978
President, Syntex Research

Wayne State University

1952 to 1954
Associate Professor of Chemistry
1954 to 1957
Professor of Chemisty

Stanford University

1959 to 2002
Professor of Chemistry

Syva Associates

1966 to 1978
Chairman, Board of Governors

Zoecon Corporation

1968 to 1986
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Cetus Corporation

1975 to 1986
Director
1971 to 1972

Catalytica, Inc.

1983 to 1986
Director

Teknowledge, Inc.

1983 to 1986
Director

Honors

Year(s) Award
1953

Honorary doctorate, National University of Mexico

1958

Award in Pure Chemistry, American Chemical Society

1958

Honorary doctorate, Kenyon College

1959

Leo Hendrik Baekeland Medal, American Chemical Society, North Jersey Section

1960

Fritzsche Award, American Chemical Society

1969

Intra-Science Research Foundation Award

1969

Honorary doctorate, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

1971

Freedom Foundation Patent Award, American Institute of Chemists

1972

Honorary doctorate, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

1973

National Medal of Science

1973

Award for Creative Invention, American Chemical Society

1973

Chemical Pioneer Award, American Institute of Chemists

1973

Madison Marshall Award, American Chemical Society, Alabama Section

1975

Perkin Medal, Society of Chemical Industry

1975

Honorary doctorate, Columbia University

1975

Chemistry Alumni Award for Scientific Achievement, City College of New York

1977

Honorary doctorate, University of Uppsala

1978

First recipient of the Wolf Prize in Chemistry

1978

National Inventors Hall of Fame, United States Patent Office

1978

Honorary doctorate, Coe College

1978

Honorary doctorate, University of Geneva

1982

Camille and Henry Dreyfus Distinguished Scholar, Duke University

1982

Gregory Pincus Memorial Lecture and Award, Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology

1982

Sixth Annual Exploratorium Award, The Exploratorium Museum

1983

Award in the Chemistry of Contemporary Technological Problems, American Chemical Society

1983

John and Samuel Bard Award in Medicine and Science

1985

Honorary doctorate, University of Ghent

1985

Honorary doctorate, University of Manitoba

1988

Roussel Prize (Paris)

1988

Discoverer's Award, Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association

1989

Gustavus John Esselen Award for Chemistry in the Public Interest

1990

First recipient of the Award for the Industrial Application of Science, U. S. National Academy of Sciences

1991

National Medal of Technology

1992

Priestley Medal, American Chemical Society

1992

Nevada Medal, US National Academy of Sciences

1993

Honorary doctorate, Adelphi University

1994

Thomson Gold Medal, International Mass Spectrometry Society

1995

Prince Mahidol Award in Medicine (Thailand)

1995

Honorary doctorate, University of South Carolina

1995

Honorary doctorate, University of Wisconsin

1995

Honorary doctorate, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH)

1996

Sovereign Fund Award

1997

Willard Gibbs Medal, American Chemical Society, Chicago Section

1997

Honorary doctorate, University of Maryland-Baltimore County

1998

William Proctor Prize for Scientific Achievement, Sigma Xi

1998

Honorary doctorate, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences

1999

Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art, First Class

2016

Othmer Gold Medal, Chemical Heritage Foundation

2016

Honorary Doctorate, University of Aberdeen

2016

Author's Prize, German Chemical Society

2016

Honorary doctorate, Polytechnic University (New York)

2016

Gold Medal, American Institute of Chemists

Table of Contents

Childhood and Early Education
1

Parents and family situation in Vienna and Sofia. Realgymnasium in Vienna. The move to Bulgaria. Secondary school at The American College in Sofia. Curriculum. Early interest in medicine. Growing up as an only child. Skiing accident.

Immigration to the United States and Undergraduate Education
7

Arrival in New York. Enrollment at the Newark Junior College. Decision to become a chemist. Scholarship to Tarkio College. College activities and the church lecture circuit. Medical problems and rejection for military service.

Ciba and Graduate Education at Wisconsin
13

Ciba Pharmaceutical Company. Synthesis of Pyrabenzamine. The antihistamine revolution. First graduate courses at New York University and Brooklyn Polytechnic. Decision to go to graduate school. Decision to study steroids with Wilds. Marriage. WARF fellowship to Wisconsin. Friendship with Gilbert Stork. State of instrumentation in academic institutions. Estrogen synthesis. The dieneone-phenol rearrangement. Coining names for organic reactions. Reasons for not considering Harvard. Santonin.

Ciba, Syntex, and Wayne State
23

Work at Ciba on medicinal compounds. Decision to return to academe. Offer of research position at Syntex in Mexico City. Steroid research. Professorship at Wayne State University. Knee fusion. Divorce and remarriage.

Faculty Member at Stanford
28

Offer from University of Wisconsin. Move to Stanford University. Leave in Mexico. Reasons for leaving Mexico. Professional polygamy. Syntex-Stanford connections. Syva. Zoecon. Cetus. Teknowledge.

Personal Comments and Philosophy
37

American organic chemistry. Changing status of natural product chemistry. Costs of mixing business and academe. Writing poetry and fiction. Chemistry and the arts. Changes in chemistry. Reasons for prolific scientific writing. Students and postdoctoral fellows. Children. Views on interaction between academe and industry.

Notes
57
Index
59

About the Interviewer

Jeffrey L. Sturchio

Jeffrey L. Sturchio is president and CEO of the Global Health Council. Previously he served as vice president of corporate responsibility at Merck & Co., president of the Merck Company Foundation, and chairman of the U.S. Corporate Council on Africa. Sturchio is currently a visiting scholar at the Institute for Applied Economics and the Study of Business Enterprise at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the Global Agenda Council on the Healthy Next Generation of the World Economic Forum. He received an AB in history from Princeton University and a PhD in the history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania.

Arnold Thackray

Arnold Thackray founded the Chemical Heritage Foundation and served the organization as president for 25 years. He is currently CHF’s chancellor. Thackray received MA and PhD degrees in history of science from Cambridge University. He has held appointments at Cambridge, Oxford University, and Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 1983 Thackray received the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society for outstanding contributions to the history of chemistry. He served for more than a quarter century on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the founding chairman of the Department of History and Sociology of Science and is currently the Joseph Priestley Professor Emeritus.