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Carl Djerassi

Sue Lawley's castaway is the inventor of the contraceptive pill - Carl Djerassi.

Carl Djerassi was born in Vienna to an Austrian mother and Bulgarian father. Both parents were involved in the medical profession and, growing up surrounded by medical paraphernalia, he assumed that he would become a doctor. For the first four years of his schooling in Austria, he attended a girls' school as the boys school was full. He says "women are much more important than men in my life. I mean, I enjoyed it, I'm not complaining at all!" He didn't start studying science until his mid-teens and the outbreak of war meant a move to America, where he attended a pre-medical course at college. He soon became interested in organic chemistry and focussed on this subject for his PhD.

Whilst working at a pharmaceutical company he was involved in two important discoveries. The synthesis of cortisone from plant material was, at that time, the most competitive and difficult project amongst chemists. Cortisone was considered a wonder drug in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, inflammation and eczema. The other discovery was the creation of a progesterone that could be orally active - aimed at treating menstrual disorders and infertility. It was realised that it could be used as a contraceptive but, as Carl says: "in the 1950s contraception was not high on the priority list. Pharmaceutical companies, with one exception, were not interested in that field. The population explosion and these concepts did not come about until 10 years later". It wasn't until 1960 that it was approved by the FDA as a contraceptive and became the Pill.

Carl spent the next few years working in research and universities. He has also published five novels, three plays, a book of short stories, an autobiography and a memoir and is still writing. He describes a lot of his work as science in fiction - not science fiction - which explores aspects of scientific behaviour and of scientific facts. As he says, "Disguising them in the cloak of fiction, it is possible to illustrate ethical dilemmas that frequently are not raised for reasons of discretion, embarrassment, or fear of retribution".

[Taken from the original programme material for this archive edition of Desert Island Discs]

Favourite track: Songs on the Death of Children by Gustav Mahler
Book: Collected poetry and prose by Wallace Stevens
Luxury: A solar powered computer with a secret compartment containing a white powder

Available now

45 minutes

Last on

Fri 25 Oct 2002 09:00

Music Played

  • Modest Mussorgsky

    Sadly rustled the leaves

    Soloist: Boris Kristov Orchestra: French National Radio Orchestra

    • Mussorgsky: Songs.
    • EMI.
  • Hector Berlioz

    Les nuits d'été

    Soloist: Marie Nicole Lemieux with Daniel Blumenthal

    • Lemieux/Blumenthal: Lieder.
    • Cypress.
  • Giuseppe Verdi

    Ella è pura (from Un ballo in maschera)

    Soloist: Placido Dominog Orchestra: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

    • A Masked Ball.
    • Deutsche Grammophon.
  • Neil Young


    • Neil Young: Unplugged.
    • Reprise.
  • Castaway's Favourite

    • Gustav Mahler


      Soloist: Janet Baker Orchestra: Hallé Orchestra

      • Mahler: Lieder.
      • EMI.
  • Respondemos (from Sephardic Love Songs)

    Soloist: Victoria de Los Angeles, G Parsons

  • Ludwig van Beethoven

    String Quartet No. 7 in F major, Op. 59/1 'Rasumovsky'

    Orchestra: The Takacs Quartet

    • Beethoven: Middle Quartets.
    • Decca.
  • Steve Reich

    Who Is Ibrahim? (from The Cave)

    Orchestra: Steve Reich Ensemble Conductor: Paul Hillier

    • The Cave.
    • Nonesuch.
  • Book Choice

    • Collected poetry and prose - Wallace Stevens

  • Luxury Choice

    • A solar powered computer with a secret compartment containing a white powder


Role Contributor
Presenter Sue Lawley
Interviewed Guest Carl Djerassi


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