Carl Djerassi, RIP


Carl Djerassi

Known as “the father of the birth control pill” – an odd phrase, when you think of it – Stanford University professor Carl Djerassi was a genius in many areas of chemistry, authoring or coauthoring more than 1200 scientific papers. After he turned sixty, he turned to writing novels and plays, with great success. (I remember a number of my colleagues in the English department at Stanford being, well, a tad bit jealous.)

He was famously immodest – without, somehow, being arrogant. He mentored generations of scientists and, as a philanthropist, supported artists for decades.

I met professor Djerassi through my Stanford advisor, the wonderful Diane Middlebrook, his wife. Diane once told me that one of Djerassi’s great qualities was that he did not react to – perhaps did not even *notice* – her moods, and hence wasn’t adversely affected by them – so she never had to feel guilty *having* them. (I knew where she was coming from.)

Their home – an entire floor (the 14th?) of a Russian Hill apartment building in San Francisco – was filled with modern art by likes of Paul Klee and Alexander Calder. Once, when the couple was in London, Diane invited me to stay there for a week. I was so afraid I’d bump into a million-dollar painting or mobile, I stayed in the kitchen and bedroom my first couple of days there. Diane had a desk that looked out onto Alcatraz. That’s where she wrote her biographies of Anne Sexton, Billy Tipton, and “the marriage” of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. (I was very honoured indeed to be asked by Diane to copy-edit the first draft of the Tipton bio, Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton.)

Diane passed away eight years ago. I honestly can’t believe it has been that long. Her wisdom and sweet courtesy were legendary. I am grateful to professor Djerassi for being a great husband to her, and grateful, too, for the gifts – his inventions,  his research – that have improved the lives of millions and millions of people the world over.

Thank you both.

(The photograph above, appearing in the Stanford Report’s nicely composed obituary, was taken in Diane and Djerassi’s huge library. By delightful luck, right above the great chemist’s right elbow is a copy of my first book.)

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