Thank You, Carl Djerassi: Birth Control Pill Chemist

When I read the obituary of Carl Djerassi,  a chemist and writer who died this week at age 91, a series of “what ifs” came into my head.

What if he and his parents hadn’t escaped the Nazis?

What if he didn’t write a letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, seeking her assistance in procuring funds to attend college?

What if the first school, Tarkio College in Missouri, didn’t close and he didn’t transfer to Kenyon College, then an all men’s school in Gambier, Ohio?

What if he didn’t pursue a chemistry degree?

Djerassi was among a team of scientists credited with discovering the birth control pill. Like so many products in medicine cabinets, most people don’t know the names behind the inventions, but take for granted they’re there. The birth control pill, now considered commonplace, had a rocky beginning, including protests about its use and distribution.

I met Djerassi in 2008 when his play Taboos opened in New York.

In an interview for Education Update,  Djerassi shared his views on the role of science and art.

Here are  excerpts:

“For Carl Djerassi, the chemist, scientific discoveries are tangible and transparent. For Carl Djerassi, the writer, the ramifications of these discoveries pose challenging questions…”

“…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…”

“…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…”

Thank you, Eleanor Roosevelt for helping this young refugee get an education.

Thank you, Carl Djerassi for changing the lives of women worldwide.


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13 Responses to Thank You, Carl Djerassi: Birth Control Pill Chemist

  1. Carl seems to have been a philosopher as well as a chemist – what an interesting man! Thanks for sharing Carl’s story Lisa. 🙂
    Diana xo


  2. Thank you for sharing this, Lisa. I’d read that he had died, but I had no idea of the depth and breadth of this man’s character and talents! Loved your series of ‘what ifs’ too. Makes you think about so many other ‘way ifs’.


  3. Thanks, Naomi. He was an amazing person.


  4. susanissima says:

    Yes, indeed! Djerassi’s work on “the pill” has positively impacted so many of us. Good to know he had other talents, as well.


  5. True that we take so much for granted! Thanks for this enlightening piece, Lisa.


  6. Coming East says:

    Very interesting post. I had never heard of him, so thanks for the education. Now I’m interested in seeing or reading Taboos.


  7. Wow! Thanks for enlightening me, what an outstanding scientist, and artist and lucky you to have met him! He used both sides of his brain and is right about that genie. I wonder what he would say about placing the nucleus of an egg into another egg before fertilization – ie the “three parent baby?” I think he’d be all for it!


  8. hugmamma says:

    Intriguing. I’d not heard of the man, especially since I only used birth control the first 2 years of my marriage. My daughter, however, has used it since age 16…at my insistence. So I am grateful to Djerassi, whose invention helped her pursue a dance career, which she is still enjoying passionately. Sex is a beautiful thing, particularly when one is in love. And love can, and does happen, more than once in a person’s lifetime. hugs for sharing…


    • Thanks, Millie. I used the pill for a while and other methods. Even with modern science, I am wary of the constant use of chemicals in the body. My daughter has been on the pill also for years as are most of her friends. I find it scary.


  9. Interesting story. Iagre with you about the use of chemicals


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