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A tribute to Carl Djerassi

How to cite this article: Zárate A, Saucedo R. A tribute to Carl Djerassi. Rev Med Inst Mex Seguro Soc. 2015 May-Jun;53(3):260-2.



Received: February 22nd 2015

Accepted: March 25th 2015

A tribute to Carl Djerassi

Arturo Zárate,a Renata Saucedoa

aUnidad de Investigación de Endocrinología, Diabetes y Metabolismo del Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social, Centro Médico Nacional, Distrito Federal, México

Correspondencie: Arturo Zárate


On January 15, 2015, Carl Djerassi, an extraordinary personality, died at the age of 91 years. He was born in Vienna, Austria, on October 29, 1923. His parents were physicians and probably he wanted to be also a physician, but sooner than later he chose to be a chemist. In 1939 he arrived to live to New York with his mother. In 1945 he became American citizen. Part of his work is the first commercial antihistamine, pyribenzamine, and the first successful combined oral contraceptive pill. With this editorial we make a tribute to this steroid pioneer.

Keywords: Biography; contraceptive agents

On January 30, 2015 Carl Djerassi (Figure 1), an extraordinary, prominent, and versatile character, died at the age of 91 years in San Francisco, California. He was born in Vienna, Austria, on October 29, 1923. His parents were doctors and probably for this reason Djerassi was interested in following the same profession, but soon decided that chemistry was more attractive. He emigrated with his mother to New York in 1939 at the age of 16 years and a few years later acquired US citizenship after graduating as Doctor in Chemistry from the University of Wisconsin in 1945.

Figure 1 Photograph of Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) in his time as a professor at Stanford University, California

From childhood he was distinguished by his intelligence and in school he always received top honors. Arriving in the United States, his family had few resources and therefore he requested, through a letter addressed to Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, a scholarship to continue his college and university studies. After graduation he joined Ciba pharmaceutical in New Jersey, where he remained until 1949. During his time at this company he was able to synthesize and patent the first commercial antihistamine, piribenzamina. In 1949 Jorge Rosenkranz, a chemist born in Budapest and emigrated first to Cuba and then to Mexico, invited him to be part of the research group at Syntex (Figure 2) in Mexico City. At that time there was interest in synthesizing progesterone as a precursor of cortisone, as the latter was widely required in the pharmaceutical industry. These two chemists, with the assistance of a student, Luis E. Miramontes, from the Faculty of Chemistry, UNAM, managed in 1951 to synthesize the first progestogen (oral progesterone), norethisterone or norethindrone as the basic compound of what was later the oral contraceptive approved in 1960 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United States. It should be mentioned that upon entering Syntex the assigned goal was to treat menstrual disorders and other gynecological problems without regard to fertility control. In 1952 he became professor of chemistry at Wayne State University in Detroit, and seven years later at the University of Stanford, California, where he remained until his retirement in 2002. He was also president of Syntex in Mexico and in Palo Alto, California, and in 1968 founded the company Zoecom for the production of insecticides to prevent larvae from reaching adulthood. In this administrative, business, and industrial period he managed to acquire a high financial level, which inspired broad multifaceted activity, from which emerged activities such as literature, poetry, dramaturgy, and collecting; he even acquired five hectares near Stanford and Palo Alto to raise a herd of cattle, which served in 1976 as an colony for artists who were struggling to gain position. This colony used half of the estate upon the suicide of his daughter Pamela in 1978.   

Djerassi cannot properly be considered "the father of the pill", as he only supplied the drug compound, and it required several years of further experimentation and clinical studies by other researchers, such as Gregory Pincus, Min-Chueh Chang and John Rock. With this, the oral contraceptive was released to the market and was soon used worldwide.

Figure 2 Carl Djerassi’s Laboratory at Syntex, Mexico, in 1950

It should be recognized that Russell E. Marker (1902-1995) studied sarsasapogenin extracted from the American lily and found that in the state of Veracruz there were two plants in great abundance: Mexican yam (Dioscorea mexicana) and barbasco (Dioscorea composita) from which the molecule diosgenin could be extracted. Based on this, the chemist Marker was able to synthesize progesterone (Figure 3). The industrialization of this was the basis for the company Syntex in Mexico; meanwhile, Marker had already returned to the University of Pennsylvania, where several years later he was awarded the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa, since he had not shown interest in a doctorate in chemistry. It is worth mentioning that Marker was the Honorary Guest and recipient of a medal at the International Congress of Steroids held in Mexico and organized by the Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social in the early seventies, under the presidency of Luis Castelazo Ayala and Jose Luis Mateos as secretary.   

Figure 3 Russell E. Marker in a barbasco field circa 1944

Djerassi may be the paradigm of polymathy, because he was an artist, entrepreneur, philanthropist and intellectual polygamist, as he defined himself by his affinity for women and eroticism (Figure 4). Therefore he declared that "man is not monogamous by nature." For him, sex was primarily fun, not procreation. Moreover, his character was rough; he had an introverted and dull, lonely and cold personality. He was married three times, but with his last wife, Diane Middlebrook, who died in 2007, he expressed romance and affection for others. He was criticized by other chemists and ignored in the artistic area. He received the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa from about 30 universities worldwide, including the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México; he was also awarded the two most prestigious medals in the United States: the National Medal of Science in 1973 and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 1991, from the hands of the presidents of the U.S. in those years.

Figure 4 Carl Djerassi circa 2000


The authors are professional researchers at Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social, and Sistema Nacional de Investigadores (SNI/CONACYT).

Recommended reading
  1. Academia Mexicana de Ciencias. Boletín AMC/038/1. Desempeñó Djerassi un papel preponderante en la industria de los esteroides en México. México DF, 18 de febrero 2015.
  2. Djerassi C. Steroids Made it Possible (Profiles, Pathways, and Dreams). American Chemical Society; 1990.
  3. Djerassi C. The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas’ Horse. Basic Books; 1992.
  4. Djerassi C. From the Lab into The World: A Pill for People, Pets, and Bugs. American Chemical Society; 1994.
  5. Djerassi C. En retrospectiva: de la píldora a la pluma. Di Renzo Editore; 2004.
  6. Djerassi C. This Man’s Pill: Reflections on the 50th Birthday of the Pill. USA: Oxford University Press; 2004.

Conflict of interest statement: The authors have completed and submitted the form translated into Spanish for the declaration of potential conflicts of interest of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, and none were reported in relation to this article.

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