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A conversation with Carl Djerassi, a father of the pill

Carl Djerassi

Photo: AP Photo/Joerg Sarbach

Fifty years ago, the FDA approved the oral contraceptive pill for the prevention of pregnancy, but chemists started mixing the chemical compound that paved the way for biologists and clinicians to develop the pill a full decade earlier. Dr. Carl Djerassi, the American scientist who has been called one of the many fathers of the pill, is quick to point out this distinction. In his book “This Man’s Pill: Reflections on the 50th Birthday of the Pill” (published in 2001 to commemorate the golden anniversary of the pill’s chemical inception), Djerassi tells the story of the early days of the pill’s invention and gives credit to the scientists whose contributions were essential to the development of oral contraception. Need to Know’s Jackie Pou interviewed Djerassi, and here’s what he had to say about the drug that changed the world.

Jackie Pou: Did you ever imagine that your discovery of the active hormone would contribute to what has become one of the most popular drugs in the world today?

Carl Djerassi: No, I don’t think anybody did. First of all, I’m a chemist and not a biologist. Everything starts with chemistry: The biologist can’t do anything until the chemical production is there. We tried to make an orally active progestational hormone, which is what we did. We then sent it to many different biologists. One of them was Gregory Pincus, a name that many people know, who is often thought of as the biologist with the original idea. But the original idea was [conceived] 25 years earlier by this man by the name of Ludwig Haberlandt.

Pou: Last year, you penned a commentary about the demographic decline in Europe that many construed as an oblique mea culpa for your role in the development of the pill. What do you think of the pill and its role in human population growth?

Djerassi: What happened last year was [that] I wrote a major article in the Austrian newspaper and it was decrying the recent election in Austria as a very xenophobic one. [I pointed out] that Austria and other European countries have at one point begotten 1.5 children in a family, which is insufficient to maintain a population. Immigration is one of the [most] important demographic solutions.

People misquoted me! It was actually the Cardinal of Austria who said that I said it was actually the pill that was responsible for this. The pill has nothing to do with this! People do not have fewer children because the pill is available. The best example is Japan, which has even more horrible problems than Europe in terms of an aging population and decreasing population. And the pill was not legalized in Japan until 1999 and is not very popular. Therefore women have fewer children for different reasons.

[Read Carl Djerassi’s follow-up response to his comments regarding population decline.]

Pou: What if the pill never existed?

Djerassi: Well, that is an interesting question … one that I [mulled over] in my book, “This Man’s Pill.” But of course, for me as a chemist I see the birthday as being 1951 and not 1960. What people forget is that the 1960s was also the decade [that gave birth to] the sexual revolution, drug culture, rock and roll, and, most importantly, the women’s movement. All these had a great deal to do with sexual liberation, and this was an ideal window of opportunity. If we had done our chemical work 15 years later, in other words instead of 1950 but in 1965, the biologists would have then done their work in 1968, and the clinicians in the early 1970s, and you would have no pill. Absolutely no question.