“The Pill” Founder Carl Djerassi Provokes Through Drama
For Carl Djerassi, the chemist, scientific discoveries are tangible and transparent. For Carl Djerassi, the writer, the ramifications of these discoveries pose challenging questions. And at 84, the man who created the steroid oral contraceptive, “the Pill” hasn't stopped teaching and writing. His latest play, Taboos, which opened recently in New York, is meant to provoke debate, he told Education Update.
Taboos addresses the complications that arise when conception occurs in the laboratory, not the bedroom. Featuring a lesbian couple and an infertile fundamentalist Christian couple who all want to have a child, the play questions what defines a parent, and what creates a family.
Born in Vienna to Jewish physicians, Djerassi and his family fled to Bulgaria in 1938 to escape the Nazis. He moved to the United States a year later. A letter writing campaign to Eleanor Roosevelt landed him full tuition, room and board at a small college in Missouri that closed within a year. Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio offered to cover his fees and he graduated in 1942 with a degree in chemistry. After a year working for CIBA drug company in Summit, NJ, he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin, earned his Ph.D., and then worked for the Mexico City -based chemical company, Syntex, focusing on steroid chemistry, particularly the synthesis of cortisone from plant raw material. This led to the first synthesis of an oral contraceptive pill in 1951. This discovery, which fueled in part the 1960’s social and cultural revolution, garnered Djerassi many prestigious awards and a full professorship at Stanford University, where he is an emeritus professor.
Turning to fiction writing 20 years ago, Djerassi has published 5 novels, poems, short stories, his autobiography, and six plays in the “science-in-fiction” genre. Through writing fiction, he tries to introduce scientific concepts often considered too complicated for the general public and explain the culture of scientists- the competition to publish discoveries first and the need for research funds and academic recognition, among them.
“There’s an attitude that's either anti-science or a-science,” he said. “People are either afraid of it or not interested.”
Though critics may call his plays “too didactic,” Djerassi stresses the underlying theme is discovery and that in science, there’s “vertical progress”—when the time is ripe for a discovery or invention, it will happen.
Scientists themselves are “important, yet unimportant. Millions of women take birth control pills. They don’t know or care who invented them,” he said, admitting that by writing he hopes to ensure his own mortality.
Djerassi, who divides his time between San Francisco and London, attends 30-40 plays a year, and admires playwright Tom Stoppard for his ability to bring intellectual concepts to drama. He utilizes new teaching methods in his writing. ICSI, a 50-minute television talk show drama designed for classroom use, which focuses on the technology of reproductive biology, includes a rap and a compact disc. He’ll be returning to the classroom this winter to teach an interdisciplinary seminar in chemistry and drama.
Taboos, he said, like his other plays, is especially pertinent given the current political climate and election. “The greatest cultural innovations of the last 40 years were the invention of the Pill and invitro-fertilization,” he said. “These gave us sex without reproduction, and reproduction without sexual intercourse. No one can say this is sinful; the genie has already escaped. Opponents can argue all they want.”
Taboos runs at the Soho Playhouse through October 19. #