To mark the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the birth-control pill in the US, Carl Djerassi tells Deutsche Welle what events led him to this medical breakthrough, and how it changed the world.
Today's birth-control pills are chemically related to his original, says Djerassi
The father of the oral contraceptive pill, Carl Djerassi, was born in 1923 into a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria. He lived in Bulgaria with his parents as a young child and then returned to Vienna with his mother following his parents' divorce. With the spread of the Nazi regime to Austria in 1938, he returned to Bulgaria to live with his father. In 1939, he immigrated to the United States with his mother.
In the US, Djerassi pursued studies in chemistry and in 1949 was appointed associate director of chemical research at a pharmaceutical company called Syntex in Mexico City. There, he worked on a new synthesis of cortisone. His team later synthesized norethindrone - a progestin-analogue that was effective when taken orally. This became part of the first successful oral contraceptive, the combined oral contraceptive pill (COCP). The COCP became commonly known as the birth-control pill, or simply, the pill.
Click on the audio link below to listen to a more extensive interview with Carl Djerassi.
Deutsche Welle: Before you left Austria, did you have any plans for how your life was going to go?
Djerassi was amused to be linked to sexual revolution
Carl Djerassi: Before the Nazis came to Austria and I had to flee, I would have expected to be a physician, because both my parents were physicians and I was basically brought up in a doctor's office.
To move onto the moment when you and your team synthesized the first digestible form of progestin that eventually became the pill - what you were trying to create was not initially concerned with contraception, was it?
Whenever people ask me that - and it's a very logical question to ask - I cannot answer yes or no, because it's more complicated than that. I always start with the fact that a lot was known about progesterone at the time. The compound had been isolated in the 30s, synthesized and then used in medicine continuously for the treatment of menstrual irregularities and infertility. But progesterone is not orally active, so it was always given by injection.
At that time, when I worked at this small pharmaceutical company Syntex, we wanted to develop some drugs of our own that we could sell, not only patent, under the name Syntex, rather than just being suppliers to other companies. One of the projects that were selected at the time was to make a compound - a progestin - that had the biological activity of progesterone or better, but that was orally active. And we wanted to do it for uses in medicine, which were menstrual irregularities and infertility. Also, there was someone at the national cancer institute who was interested in possibly using progesterone for cervical cancer.
That progesterone could also be used as a contraceptive was obvious. It was something that an Austrian named Ludwig Haberlandt had already discovered in the 1920s and early 1930s. But you need to remember that at that time there was essentially no interest in contraception in the pharmaceutical industry in the United States or elsewhere, because that was after the war. At that point, millions of people had died and millions of people postponed having a family, so that was not their high priority.
Contraception changed many people's attitude towards sex
During that time, after we synthesized the compound, we sent it to a lot of different biologists. One of them was a man named Gregory Pincus, who worked in the United States and was interested in the application of oral contraception. And he was also a very good entrepreneur - he really pushed this after that material had already been approved for clinical use by the food and drug administration in the United States. Three years later, they permitted these compounds to be used for contraception.
The one that we made, Norethindrone, is still used by millions of women, and all the subsequent oral contraceptives that have been developed are very close chemical relatives of the first compound that we made.
Was there anything novel in the way that you synthesized that progestin at the time?
Very much so. The chemistry was very difficult, very sophisticated. To explain that on the radio would be impossible, because even if I explained it to a chemist I would have to say, 'Do you have a paper and pencil so I can show you the chemical structures?'
It's certainly the invention you're most well-known for. But would you say that of all the work that you've done in chemistry it was the most creative?
No, absolutely not. I've done many other things that I think were much more significant in retrospect as chemical discoveries. I've published well over a thousand papers, and maybe 60 or 80 were in this area, but none of the others were in the area of contraception. But that particular discovery had much bigger societal effects than any other.
You've had at this point about 60 years to think about the meaning of this chemical that you synthesized. Has that changed over the years? Do you feel like any part of this equation between the sexual revolution and the pill has been overblown?
The 60s were a time of great social change
I don't think it has been overblown - it was dealt with too simplistically, I think. And it's understandable why. It had an enormous impact of women, and we all know this. But both positively and negatively, it was credited and blamed for the sexual revolution. And while I was amused and perhaps even pleased that people said I was partly responsible for that, I think that's too simplified.
The 1960s were exactly the right time for an oral contraceptive to be introduced, because of all these social movements - the Beatles, the drug culture, the hippie culture, and especially the women's liberation movement. And they were all associated with the liberation of sexual behavior, even some promiscuous sexual behavior.
Interview: Sruthi Pinnamanen (ew)
Editor: Kate Bowen