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The Polymath and the Pill : THE PILL, PYGMY CHIMPS, AND DEGAS' HORSE: The Remarkable Autobiography of the Award-Winning Scientist Who Synthesized the Birth Control Pill, By Carl Djerassi (Basic Books: $25; 307 pp.)

April 19, 1992|Daniel Kevles | Kevles' most recent book is "The Code of Codes: Scientific and Social Issues in the Human Genome Project" (Harvard University Press)

Carl Djerassi unabashedly calls himself an intellectual polygamist. At the beginning of the 1950s, when he was the associate director for research of Syntex, then a fledgling chemical firm in Mexico City, he led the team that synthesized the first oral contraceptive pill. During the next 20 years, he helped make Syntex a chemical powerhouse while earning a reputation as a leading steroid chemist, teaching on the Stanford University faculty, and becoming a wealthy man. Since the early 1970s, he has been a statesman of science, initiator of a conservation and research program in Zaire for the pygmy chimp, and a collector of art, including a horse sculpted by Degas.

In the 1980s, in the wake of a bitter, though as it turned out only temporary, disappointment in love, he began writing fiction, and recently he published his first novel, "Cantor's Dilemma." Now he has produced an autobiography that is part display, reporting his encounters with the makers and sellers of silk shirts and tailored jackets, but mostly picaresque adventure, in some ways outdoing fiction in the risks and improbabilities it describes, and in the discoveries--personal as well as scientific--that it recounts.

From its Middle European beginnings, Djerassi's life was unorthodox. Much of his childhood was divided between summer months with his father, a bon vivant Bulgarian physician, and the school year with his mother, a Viennese doctor turned dentist. (The couple had divorced when he was 6 but neglected for many years to tell him.) At age 16, he and his mother came to the United States, Jewish refugees from Hitler, with little to sustain him except an outstanding school record and a dash of chutzpah.

Djerassi promptly wrote a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt asking for financial assistance to continue his education. The letter led, roundabout, to the award of a scholarship to Tarkio College in Tarkio, Mo., where, being perhaps the only Austrian-Bulgarian immigrant in the neighborhood, he lectured to church groups on the situation in Europe. He usually got paid from the collection plate, but on one occasion a Methodist minister deftly finessed the honorarium, which made Djerassi want to write another letter to the first lady: "Dear Mrs. Roosevelt, warn the President not to trust the Methodists."

The Tarkio scholarship launched him on the path that led, in 1945, to a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin, a stint with the CIBA pharmaceutical company, and, in 1949, to a position at Syntex. The firm, whose name was meant to evoke "synthesis" and "Mexico," recently had been founded by a renegade chemist who had been unable to interest any American firms in inedible yams--or rather in the group of steroid compounds found in certain kinds of the plants, which grow wild in Mexico. Friends advised Djerassi against casting his lot with a small upstart company in a scientific backwater. But Djerassi, who wanted an eventual academic career, was attracted to the company because it aspired, as he did, to an outstanding scientific reputation.

Djerassi compellingly relates the chemical strategy that Syntex followed to produce the oral contraceptive and build its fortune. His tale is a classic study of how scientific boldness--the willingness to explore uncertain but intriguing avenues--can yield big payoffs in technological innovation and market competitiveness.

No less absorbing is his story of how Syntex, whose headquarters followed Djerassi to Palo Alto in the early 1960s, spun off two profitable new companies: Syva, which imaginatively exploited techniques to detect trace chemicals in, say, blood or urine; and Zoecon, which concocted environmentally benign pesticides out of synthetic insect hormones.

The research programs of both firms relied on knowledge obtained from consultations with faculty at Stanford. Djerassi himself, with the endorsement of the Stanford provost, wore two hats: professor and executive vice president for research at Syntex. The arrangements all fell perfectly within Stanford's rules, and Djerassi typically celebrates the success of Syva as "a first-class example of the synergy generated when the interplay between academia and industry is allowed to proceed in an enlightened environment."

Such a consistently cozy relationship between industry and academe can, of course, become corrupting. For example, the needs of the corporation can overshadow those of the academy, thereby exploiting graduate students and discouraging openness in the professor's laboratory for fear of revealing proprietary secrets.

Djerassi neglects such issues. But his inattentiveness is explicable, if regrettable, on grounds that he himself ran an active academic research program, cared for his students, and devoted a lot of time to teaching, devising a variety of innovative and effective pedagogical methods.

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