Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Carl Djerassi, the chemist behind the Pill, died on January 30th, aged 91

Here is the obituary from The Economist for a truly distinguished man.

I met Dr. Djerassi first when he was the Chair of the National Research Council's Board on Science and Technology for International Development (BOSTID), and I began a two decade association with BOSTID as the manager of the grants from USAID that provided a major part of its funding.

Carl Djerassi was I suppose best described as a polymath. His career as a chemist was distinguished: he synthesized the chemical that made the first birth control pill possible.
He developed synthetic juvenile hormone in insects, preventing them becoming adults, for non-toxic control of mosquitoes and fleas, developed corticosteroids for inflammation—steroids had been a passion since the 1940s—and devised a way of detecting opiates in urine, used by the army in Vietnam.
He was a professor of chemistry at Stanford University for many years. As an entrepreneur and expert in research management, he ran two research companies while on the Stanford Faculty. He owned a California winery that produced fine wines. He was an art collector. Later he wrote novels and plays.

I knew him as a man who cared about the poor in poor counties and was willing to devote time and effort to advising the government on how to use science and technology to better the lot of these people; he did so without pay.

I remember others associated with BOSTID, including George Bugliarello, Roger Revelle, Frederick Seitz, E.O. Wilson, Hugh Popenoe, John Gibbons, Joshua Lederberg and Frederick Robbins. Offhand I can think of two Nobel Prizes and two Pulitzer Prizes among these eight people. For those who have thought that leaders in fields of science and technology live in "ivory towers", knowing any one of these men would be a revelation. Each was brilliant in his own field of specialization, each had many skills, and each cared enough about the poor and needy to devote time and effort to their aid. 

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