Carl Djerassi, you might say, is the father of The Pill.
He'd rather have been its mother.
"I suffer from one major disadvantage right at the beginning, and I know this," he says with the merest hint of a Viennese accent.
"One is, having been associated with the first development of oral contraceptives, most women will automatically assume that I'm a pill pusher, either of pill or a pill. Totally wrong.
"And also, just because I was involved in oral contraceptives, they are assuming that I'm basically a male chauvinist. And I think I'm basically a feminist.
"If I could say that there was anything I was sorry about," he says, "it's that I wasn't a woman. It would have been so much better if a woman had carried this out."
There is the air of a Strauss waltz about Carl Djerassi, but that is an oversimplification. His salt-and-pepper beard and curly hair lend his smile an almost puckish mischief at one moment and a seraphic quality the next. But his humor tends more to irony than mischief, and on certain subjects he is downright grim.One of these is the furture of mankind, a furture he regards with something less than optimism.
In any case the global nature of his concerns gives him a clarity of vision that sets the common good above the individual.
At 56, Djerassi is a major force in two often antagonistic fields of endavor: He is a professor of chemistry and research-team chief at Stanford University. He is also founder and president of Zoecon (now owned by Occidental Oil), a profitable chemical house which researches and develops bio-chemical methods of insect control.
He is best known for his work (with the then Mexican firm, Syntex) on the synthesis of the steroid which was the active chemical ingredient of the first oral contraceptive. For his contribution he received the National Medal of Science.
For 10 years he has been reluctant Cassandra of big science, prophesying the gloom and doom of overpopulation unless radical changes were made in the development of more effective contraceptives. Including one for males.
Djerassi believes that, because of the length of time needed for development, the potential for liability suits and the restrictive regulatory climate, there is no future in the private sector for researching and developingdeveloping risky things like contraceptives. Yet, he notes, "Every day there are 150,000 future parents born . . . 350,000 births of which 200,000 die . . ."
"Fundamentally, the development of a new male contraceptive would take two decades. . . that means taking quite a number of risks and our society is basically on a riskless, saftey, no-risk kick. . . and that applies to everything. . .
"I am a very impatient person when it comes to this," he says. "I think that time is an incredibly expensive commodity in general, but particularly in the context of fertillity control. . . I know nothing that we are doing in this world that has this particular time component. If you don't develop a cure for cancer, a lot of people will be miserable, but the world will change not one iota. If you do absolutely nothing about birth control, that's a totally different situation. The world would be inconceivable. . ."
Djerassi was born in Vienna in 1923. Both his parents were physicians who had met in medical school there. His mother was Austrian, his father Bulgarian. They were divorced when he was small and he spent time in both countries until the advent of Hilter. He and his mother came to this country just after the start of the war in 1939.
As he tells it, he "conned" his way into a junior college in New Jersey because his high school in Europe had been called a "college." Once in a junior college, he recounts with some relish, he never needed to admit he never graduated from high school because the only doucment any other academic institution wanted was a college transcript. He graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio at 19 and had his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin before he was 23.
To no one's greater dismay than his own, many of his fears about overpopulation have been borne out in the past decade -- leading directly to his new book, "The Politics of Contraception," pubished by W.W. Norton.
"If there is one thing I've always been concerned about," he says, "it's the quality of life of people. . . I've an enormous concern about the gulf between the haves and the have nots. Perhaps it is more an economic one, but if you worry about that, you cannot possibly ignore the question of side effects.
"But there is one difference: I've a very global view. . . I consider myself a person who lives in this world, not in one country, or just in one small neighborhood, and that is crucial. This is what concerns me tremendously. . . We pay very little attention to our neighbors. . . who are much worse off than we."
Djerassi is sitting in one of the cozy nooks off the great hall of the National Academy of Sciences. His right leg is elevated onto a handy, collapsiable stool he has invented for his fused knee, the result of a skiing accident in Bulgaria the winter before he left Europe.
He speaks persuasively and very fast, as though his tongue has trouble keeping up with his thoughts. He is charming and considerate -- old-worldly, in fact.
Hone in California is a ranch in the Santa Cruz mountains. He is divorced and lives alone, but his son, a film-maker, has a house on the property, as did a daughter until her death two years ago. He also keeps an apartment in San Francisco.
Djerassi, who describes himself as "sensual," collects art "very seriously," and has used his own collection of pre-Colombian sculpture as artful illustrations in his book. He is an opera buff, used to play the cello and refuses to hunt or fish or permit anyone else to do so on his property. "I cannot kill," he says.
One of the controversies that has flourished around Djerassi concerns research linking The Pill to an assortment of ills, from blood clots to cancer.
"Perhaps," he says. "I might sometimes discount the suffering, the very real suffering of one person because there are benefits to thousands of others. rIt isn't that I don't care for that person, but you have to be realistic. . ."
He cites the effect liability suits are having on the risk-taking in vaccine development. "An analogy," he says, "would be what has happened to vaccination. Fewer and fewer manufactures are even willing to work in the area of vaccines because they know the tremedous number of liability suits inherent there, such as in swine flu, the most recent example.
"What happened there, when you vaccinate tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people, you are bound to have some side effect. You may kill, let's take an arbitray firgure maybe five people. Now these are the ones who are going to sue. The five who are being killed are obviously, innocent victims, but you're forgetting that in the course of having the vaccination campaign, you're saved the lives of several thousand. But they're anonymous people. You don't know who they are. The five you have killed are complete people. If you say, 'Sorry, but nevertheless we have to vaccinate,' the relatives of the five will say, 'You're a callous bastard.' And you get this all the time.
"There's an even worse example of this. That is our lunar program.If you quote me, you have to be very careful not to misquote.
"We spent $30 billion on sending someone to the moon and making as sure as we can to bring that person back. There's little doubt in my mind, even through I don't know that field, that if we had developed a program which would only have involved a one-way trip to the moon, in other words, no assurance that the person could return, it would have cost half, maybe only one-third of that. Now I'm not talking about saving money, but what we do know, any billion-dollar complicated industrial enterprise has a certain absolutely assured number of industrial deaths. Absolutely assured ones. If you have another 100,000 cars on the road, you know that x number of people will die of accidents. It's absolutely unavoidable.
"In this case, I'm sure there must have been several hundred, if not several thousand industrial deaths associated with it, but they're totally anonymous deaths. But we would rather sentence another 300 or 500 anonymous people to industrial death than to guarantee that this first lunar explorer will in fact be sentenced to death. Yet I'm absolutely sure you could have found any number of volunteers that would have been willing to go on a one-way trip to the moon and become, you know, historical heroes. This is only an example. It's very difficult to draw that line, and I don't think it makes you necessarily a 'callous bastard.'"
In one of his multiple incarnations, Djerassi has been working with the World Health Organization to try to plug some of the research and development holes left by the abdication of private business and philanthropic foundations -- such as Ford, which no longer funds fertility research programs.
Fertility research for WHO whose concern is primarily the underdeveloped nations of the Third World has been financed to the tune of $16 million basically by several affluent European nations -- Sweden, Norway, Denmark, England and across the Atlantic, Canada. Yet, because of U.S. leadership in biomedicine, the largest recipient of the research money is the United States.
As he describes this situation, Djerassi's cool, continental air dissolves into frustration:
"You would think," he says, "the United States would donate at least as much as it gets back. And why doesn't it? One senator has blocked it consistently every year -- Inouye [Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Ha.)]. Even this year," says Djerassi, "when A.I.D. was prepared to donate $2 million of its own appropriation it was vetoed by Inouye. [A subcommittee spokeswomen confirmed this.] When I heard this." says Djerassi, "I couldn't believe it. So I investigated. What I found was that nobody wants to antagonize this powerful senator [Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee for Foreign Programs] for a peanutty 2 million for which there is no U.S. constutuency.
"The punch line is that the program WHO had to drop is, what do you think? Work on a male contraceptive.
"And you can lay it all at Inouye's door."
(William H. Jordan, counsel to the Inouye subcommittee, had this to say: "Who is this fellow? I never heard of him. Anyway, it's all a matter of priorities.")
Djerassi feels that the male contraceptive must come. "Because women, but even certain men who want to take responsibility, are unhappy about the fact that there are no male methods except for condoms and sterilization. And that's all you've got. That's why I'm a firm believer in the contraceptive supermarket. . ."
And Djerassi himself? He's had a vasectomy.