Birth control pill

The side effect of a menstrual disorder drug

Carl Djerassi (Vienna, October 29, 1923)

When the Spaniards conquered South America in the sixteenth century, they discovered that Aztec women drank liters of yam root tea to temporarily render them infertile.

Four hundred years later, American scientists concluded that it was progesterone, a hormone that suppresses fertility.

Because US law did not allow research on women in this context, the experts had retreated to Mexico City and also founded a small company called Syntex.

In 1949, the 26-year-old chemist Carl Djerassi arrived there, a Bulgarian Jew who had fled from Hitler. In Bulgaria, his father had worked as a venereal disease specialist and his mother as a dentist.

When the Nazis invaded Vienna in 1938, the seventeen-year-old young man fled with his mother. After many wanderings, they arrived in New York a year later.

Djerassi: 'When we arrived we still had a total of twenty dollars, which a taxi driver immediately took from us.'

Djerassi undoubtedly had guts. He wrote a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the president, asking for a scholarship. And he got it. He graduated in 1945, worked here and there, but found no room for his boundless ambitions.

And so he ended up as a team leader at the tiny Syntex in Mexico. In the middle of 1951 the young guys there developed synthetic cortisone, the chemical imitation of a vegetable substance. The big pharmaceutical companies had been chasing it for years.

Djerassi's team immediately started looking for the synthesis of progesterone. Barely four months later, that loot was also in. To the great astonishment of the almighty American pharmaceutical industry, the solution to this problem also came from 'scientifically backward' Mexico.

The oldest member of Djerassi's team was barely 34 years old. Djerassi himself was 28 at the time.

Djerassi in an interview fifty years later: 'We were not thinking of a contraceptive at all, but of a remedy for menstrual disorders and infertility.

In some women, the pregnancy ends in miscarriage because they do not produce enough progesterone, the female sex hormone. Thanks to administration of the hormone, they can keep the baby. Why then the use as a contraceptive?

Because people discovered that it worked as such. Which is obvious. Why does a woman not get pregnant during pregnancy? Because it's the only time she produces progesterone continuously, as a natural contraceptive.

What amazed me and everyone else was that the drug took effect so quickly.'

He got a chair at Stanford University and Syntex moved with him. He made a fortune. In 1972 he sold his company and devoted himself to research into biological control of insects.

After two failed marriages, he bought a ranch with extensive lands near Stanford, in the Santa Cruz mountains. His son and his daughter Pamela, a painter, also lived in the scattered houses on the estate. In 1978, Pamela committed suicide.

Djerassi thought long and hard about what he could do in honor of his daughter and came up with the idea of turning the ranch into an artists' colony. A place where young painters and sculptors could work in peace for a while with a system of grants.

The foundation still exists and thousands of artists have now lived and worked there.

In 1985 he remarried, this time to a professor of literature who set him on the literary path. Since then, the elderly chemist has been successfully writing and publishing stories and novels about fraud in scientific research. He himself calls the genre science-in-fiction.

He still occasionally travels to complain at scientific conferences that after 'his' pill, research came to a standstill. He dreams of a kind of department store for contraception, where women and men from all cultures can find a pill to suit their own specific needs.

He thinks it is a disgrace to the pharmaceutical industry that the most radical form of contraception, namely abortion, is still used on this globe an estimated fifty million times a year. According to Djerassi, the United States is simply a banana republic in that respect.

He himself had himself sterilized. He never takes pills, not even a sleeping pill, except when his life is in danger. He has never smoked and only drank alcohol once in Congo. But that was 'because the drinking water looked like urine'.

A candidate for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for many years, Djerassi knows why he neither smokes nor drinks. He says about this in his autobiography: 'I like my pleasures au naturel', freely translated: 'I enjoy as naturally as possible.'


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