Safe Sex and Risque Prose: Kenyon Honors Carl Djerassi
Published: Thursday, October 25, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11
As the father of the modern-day birth control pill slowly made his way down the aisle, a hush fell over the overflowing crowd in the Community Foundation Theater at the Gund Gallery. Students, professors and audience members watched as the 88-year-old legend carefully made his way around the podium, forcefully placed his walking aid on a nearby table and cleared his throat into the microphone.
“Let’s start with sex. How many acts of sexual intercourse do you think happen in this world every 24 hours?”
With that, Carl Djerassi ’43, a distinguished Kenyon alumnus, emeritus professor of chemistry at Stanford University and noted novelist and playwright, opened his lecture “Sex Versus Reproduction: 1950-2050,” an exploration into the evolution of birth control and the impact of that scientific advancement across the globe. The talk was part of a series of events honoring the prolific writer and scientist on Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 22-23.
Originally from Vienna, Djerassi fled Bulgaria in 1939 and immigrated to America to escape Nazi persecution. “I had absolutely no money when I arrived,” Djerassi said.
Lacking the funds to pay for full college tuition, Djerassi mailed a letter to the First Lady of the United States’ Eleanor Roosevelt, requesting her aid in the admissions process. “I had the idea that she was sort of the Queen of America,” Djerassi said.
Djerassi eventually transferred to Kenyon as a junior and studied chemistry. Ironically, Djerassi lived in Douglas House — a living space designated specifically for writers who had come to study under John Crowe Ransom.
“I don’t know really how I ended up there,” he said. “They probably wanted to demonstrate that they don’t discriminate and had sort of one prized outsider.”
Djerassi graduated early from Kenyon and went on to further his education at the University of Wisconsin. Five years later, he was named associate director of Syntex, a pharmaceutical company in Mexico City which studied new syntheses of cortisone — the basis for oral contraceptives. On Oct. 15, 1951, he and his team successfully synthesized the first highly active progestin analogue, known colloquially as the Pill.
In 1983, Diane Middlebrook, acclaimed author, university professor and Dejerassi’s girlfriend, announced she was leaving him for another man. Djerassi later learned that the man was an author.
“I decided to avenge myself,” Djerassi told listeners.
Motivated by vengeance and an attempt to prove to his estranged wife that he could not only be a writer but also a more successful one than his wife’s lover, Djerassi penned his first manuscript, Middles.
It was a story about a wildly attractive professor and scientist with a stiff right leg in the San Francisco area who is married to an equally stunning woman. She commits the tragic mistake of leaving her husband for another man.
Djerassi pointed to his immobile left leg. “I was trying to be very subtle,” he said to the audience.
Middlebrook and Djerassi later married, but only under Middlebrook’s stipulation that Djerassi never publish the novel. The writer and chemist revealed that elements of Middles appear in a number of his works. “I did not promise not to cannibalize it,” he said.
Shortly after, Djerassi contracted a serious form of colon cancer that forced him to choose whether he would live the rest of his life as a chemist. It was then that he decided he wanted to seriously pursue a career in writing, so that he could “make up things you could never make up as a scientist.” He decided to focus on biological drama — to explain science through fiction.
Djerassi brought his innovation in the laboratory to his writing — spanning genre and style with effortless ease and fluidity. He is the author of poetry collections, short stories, autobiographies, plays and novels.
His first short story collection, How I Beat Coca-Cola and Other Stories of One-Upmanship, was never published in America, but will be published within the year.
“I thought that at the very end of my life, my very first book should appear here,” he said.
The commemoration of Djerassi’s accomplishments ended on Tuesday night with a student reading of his most recent play, Insufficiency.
And by the way, 130 million acts of sexual intercourse occur every day. That’s about 1,500 every second.
Lili Martinez contributed reporting.