New Search

Carl Djerassi

Carl Djerassi

CHF Collections, Photograph by Douglas A. Lockard

  • Born: October 29, 1923, Vienna, Austria

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0017
Interview Date: July 31, 1985
Location: Stanford University, Stanford, California
Interviewers: Jeffrey L. Sturchio and Arnold Thackray
No. of pages: 64
Minutes: 240

  Abstract of Interview

In this interview Carl Djerassi begins with his early years in Vienna and Bulgaria, including his schooling at the American College in Sofia. This is followed by his immigration to the United States, with special emphasis on his college experiences at Newark Junior College, Tarkio College, and Kenyon College. The central portion of the interview considers Djerassi as a student at the University of Wisconsin, followed by research work at Ciba, a faculty position at Wayne State University, and steroid research at Syntex in Mexico City. The interview continues with a move to Stanford University, and expands on Djerassi's dual positions in business and academe, concluding with personal views on writing scientific and non-scientific literature, interest in the arts, and a number of ways in which chemistry has changed during his career.

For additional information on Carl Djerassi, please visit his website at


1942 A.B. summa cum laude, Chemistry, Kenyon College
1945 Ph.D., Organic Chemistry, University of Wisconsin

  Professional Experience

Ciba Pharmaceutical Company

1942 - 1943 Junior Research Chemist

Ciba Pharmaceutical Company

1945 - 1949 Research Chemist

Syntex S.A.

1949 - 1952 Associate Director of Chemical Research

Syntex S.A.

1957 - 1960 Vice President for Research

Wayne State University

1952 - 1954 Associate Professor of Chemistry

Wayne State University

1954 - 1957 Professor of Chemistry

Stanford University

1959 Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus

Syntex Corporation

1960 - 1972 Director

Syntex Corporation

1964 - 1969 Data Processing Applications Analyst, Center for Computer Sciences and Technology

Syntex Corporation

1969 - 1971 Consultant to Director, Center for Computer Sciences and Technology

Syntex Research

1960 - 1964 Vice President for Research

Syntex Research

1964 - 1968 Executive Vice President

Syntex Research

1968 - 1972 President

Syntex Research

1971 - 1972 Science and Technology Fellow

Syva Associates

1966 - 1978 Chairman, Board of Governors

Zoecon Corporation

1968 - 1988 Chairman of the Board

Zoecon Corporation

1968 - 1983 Chief Executive Officer

Cetus Corporation

1975 Director

Catalytica, Inc.

1975 Director

Djerassi Resident Artists Program

1972 - 1975 Staff Assistant for Computer Usage Information, Institute for Computer Sciences and Technology

Djerassi Resident Artists Program

1982 Founder

Djerassi Resident Artists Program

1975 - 1978 Chief, Computer Information Section, Information Technology Division, Institute for Computer Sciences and Technology

Djerassi Resident Artists Program

1978 - 1979 Manager, ADP Information Analysis, Institute for Computer Sciences and Technology

Teknowledge, Inc.

1975 Director


1953 Honorary doctorate, National University of Mexico
1958 Award in Pure Chemistry, American Chemical Society
1958 Honorary doctorate, Kenyon College
1959 Leo Hendrik Baekeland Medal, American Chemical Society, North Jersey Section
1960 Fritzsche Award, American Chemical Society
1961 Member, U.S. National Academy of Sciences
1968 Honorary membership, American Academy of Pharmaceutical Sciences
1969 Honorary doctorate, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro
1969 Intra-Science Research Foundation Award
1970 Freedom Foundation Patent Award, American Institute of Chemists
1972 Honorary doctorate, Wayne State University
1972 Honorary doctorate, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
1973 National Medal of Science
1973 Award for Creative Invention, American Chemical Society
1973 Chemical Pioneer Award
1973 Madison Marshall Award, American Chemical Society, Alabama Section
1975 Perkin Medal, Society of Chemical Industry
1975 Honorary doctorate, Columbia University
1975 Chemistry Alumni Award for Scientific Achievement, City College of New York
1977 Honorary doctorate, University of Uppsala
1978 First recipient of the Wolf Prize in Chemistry
1978 National Inventors Hall of Fame, United States Patent Office
1978 Honorary doctorate, Coe College
1978 Honorary doctorate, University of Geneva
1982 Camille and Henry Dreyfus Distinguished Scholar, Duke University
1982 Gregory Pincus Memorial Lecture and Award, Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology
1982 Sixth Annual Exploratorium Award, The Exploratorium Museum
1983 Award in the Chemistry of Contemporary Technological Problems, American Chemical Society
1983 John and Samuel Bard Award in Medicine and Science
1985 Honorary doctorate, University of Ghent
1985 Honorary doctorate, University of Manitoba
1988 Roussel Prize (Paris)
1988 Discoverer's Award, Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association
1989 Gustavus John Esselen Award for Chemistry in the Public Interest
1990 First recipient of the Award for the Industrial Application of Science, U.S. National Academy of Sciences
1991 National Medal of Technology
1992 Priestley Medal, American Chemical Society
1992 Nevada Medal, U.S. National Academy of Sciences
1993 Honorary doctorate, Adelphi University
1994 Thomson Gold Medal, International Mass Spectrometry Society
1995 Prince Mahidol Award in Medicine (Thailand)
1995 Honorary doctorate, University of South Carolina
1995 Honorary doctorate, University of Wisconsin
1995 Honorary doctorate, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH)
1996 Sovereign Fund Award
1997 Willard Gibbs Medal, American Chemical Society, Chicago Section
1997 Honorary doctorate, University of Maryland-Baltimore County
1998 William Proctor Prize for Scientific Achievement, Sigma Xi
1998 Honorary doctorate, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences
1999 Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art, First Class
2000 Othmer Gold Medal, Chemical Heritage Foundation
2000 Honorary Doctorate, University of Aberdeen
2001 Author's Prize, German Chemical Society
2001 Honorary doctorate, Polytechnic University (New York)
2004 Gold Medal, American Institute of Chemists

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Childhood and Early Education 1

Parents and family situation in Vienna and Sofia. Realgymnasium in Vienna. The move to Bulgaria. Secondary school at The American College in Sofia. Curriculum. Early interest in medicine. Growing up as an only child. Skiing accident.

Immigration to the United States and Undergraduate Education 7

Arrival in New York. Enrollment at the Newark Junior College. Decision to become a chemist. Scholarship to Tarkio College. College activities and the church lecture circuit. Medical problems and rejection for military service.

Ciba and Graduate Education at Wisconsin 13

Ciba Pharmaceutical Company. Synthesis of Pyrabenzamine. The antihistamine revolution. First graduate courses at New York University and Brooklyn Polytechnic. Decision to go to graduate school. Decision to study steroids with Wilds. Marriage. WARF fellowship to Wisconsin. Friendship with Gilbert Stork. State of instrumentation in academic institutions. Estrogen synthesis. The dieneone-phenol rearrangement. Coining names for organic reactions. Reasons for not considering Harvard. Santonin.

Ciba, Syntex, and Wayne State 23

Work at Ciba on medicinal compounds. Decision to return to academe. Offer of research position at Syntex in Mexico City. Steroid research. Professorship at Wayne State University. Knee fusion. Divorce and remarriage.

Faculty Member at Stanford 28

Offer from University of Wisconsin. Move to Stanford University. Leave in Mexico. Reasons for leaving Mexico. Professional polygamy. Syntex-Stanford connections. Syva. Zoecon. Cetus. Teknowledge.

Personal Comments and Philosophy 37

American organic chemistry. Changing status of natural product chemistry. Costs of mixing business and academe. Writing poetry and fiction. Chemistry and the arts. Changes in chemistry. Reasons for prolific scientific writing. Students and postdoctoral fellows. Children. Views on interaction between academe and industry.

Notes 57

Index 59

  About the Interviewer

Jeffrey L. Sturchio

Jeffrey L. Sturchio is president and CEO of the Global Health Council. Previously he served as vice president of corporate responsibility at Merck & Co., president of the Merck Company Foundation, and chairman of the U.S. Corporate Council on Africa. Sturchio is currently a visiting scholar at the Institute for Applied Economics and the Study of Business Enterprise at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the Global Agenda Council on the Healthy Next Generation of the World Economic Forum. He received an A.B. in history from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in the history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania.

Arnold Thackray

Arnold Thackray founded the Chemical Heritage Foundation and served the organization as president for 25 years. He is currently CHF’s chancellor. Thackray received M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in history of science from Cambridge University. He has held appointments at Cambridge, Oxford University, and Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 1983 Thackray received the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society for outstanding contributions to the history of chemistry. He served for more than a quarter century on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the founding chairman of the Department of History and Sociology of Science and is currently the Joseph Priestley Professor Emeritus.

Hear It Firsthand

The Center for Oral History captures and preserves the stories of notable figures in chemistry and related fields, with over 425 oral histories that deal with various aspects of science, of scientists, and of scientific practices. For more information please visit CHF’s Oral History Program or e-mail oralhistory@

Annual Report

Annual Report
Take a look back at a year of preservation, research, and outreach in CHF’s annual report to supporters.

Support CHF

Help us preserve and share the history of chemistry and related sciences. Make a tax-deductible tax-deductible gift online.