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Carl Djerassi, the “Mother of the Pill”, has died

Carl Djerassi liked to describe himself as an “intellectual bigamist” because of his multiple interests, activities and achievements. As a chemist, he had a lasting influence on society; in synthesising the hormone cortisone, he enabled it to be mass produced, while in 1951, he synthesised the pregnancy hormone progestogen. As a result, he and the Bostonian pharmacologists Gregory Pincus and John Rock developed the birth-control pill, known in German as the “Antibabypille”. Djerassi himself rejected this name – he wanted the pill to be seen as acting not against babies but for a woman’s freedom of decision.

He also gained international renown as a patron of the arts and collector, particularly of works by Paul Klee. He donated half of his 150-strong Klee collection to the Albertina in Vienna. Moreover, he established the Djerassi Foundation, an artists’ colony near San Francisco, and set up the "Djerassi Resident Artist Program" to support painters, musicians, writers and sculptors. For the last 30 years of his life, however, his passion was literature. In his books, which he described as “science in fiction”, he attempted to bring the world of science to the attention of a wide audience, and thus created an entirely new literary genre.

Vienna and its Medical University were special to Carl Djerassi: he was born here in the General Hospital, both his parents were doctors and – had history turned out differently – he would probably also have studied medicine here and become a doctor in Vienna. He was convinced of this and frequently remarked on it. In 2012 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from MedUni Vienna. Two years ago, he was both diagnosed with cancer and treated here by doctors from MedUni Vienna. Carl Djerassi felt excellently cared for in Vienna’s General Hospital and forged a close bond with his doctors.

Djerassi’s relationship with Austria, the country of his birth, on the other hand, was long and difficult: he was born on 29 October 1923, the son of a Bulgarian father and an Austrian mother, who was required to take Bulgarian nationality on her marriage. The Jewish family immediately moved to Bulgaria, although Djerassi returned to Vienna with his mother after his parents divorced. She regained her Austrian citizenship but it was not granted to her son. In 1938, aged 15, he was expelled from Austria. Djerassi studied in the USA, where he also pursued his scientific career. He was the author of over 1,200 academic publications, was awarded many scientific prizes and honours and was emeritus professor of chemistry at Stanford University. It was not until 2004 that Djerassi was granted Austrian citizenship “in the interests of the Republic”.

Djerassi was first invited to give a lecture in Austria in 1992. In 1999, he was awarded the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Arts; in 2008, he was awarded the Grand Decoration of Honour in Silver for Services to the Republic of Austria and he was a bearer of the Ring of Honour in Gold of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. In 2005, an Austrian postage stamp was published bearing Djerassi’s portrait, of which he was very proud. After the death of his third wife, Diane Middlebrook, in 2007, he made a home in Vienna as well as his existing residences in London and San Francisco.

Right up until the end, Carl Djerassi remained a mentally alert and intellectually interested workaholic; he played a keen role in the scientific and cultural life of Vienna. His last visit to the MedUni Vienna was for the opening of the “Under the Skin” exhibition at the Josephinum last December. Moreover, he continued until recently to lecture around the world, despite the advanced stage of his illness, partly as an escape from loneliness. He was thus, as he wrote in his “Very Last Autobiography“ Treading on Shadows, following Goethe’s advice in Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years: “ Your intellect cannot cure your mental anguish at all, your reason only a little, time can cure a great deal and determined activity can cure everything.“ Carl Djerassi died of cancer at the age of 91 on 30 January in San Francisco. Now Carl Djerassi is at peace. We will miss him!


Christiane Druml,
Vice Rector for Clinical Affairs