Carl Djerassi (1923– ) participated actively in the synthesis of natural steroids, including cholesterol, bile acids, sex hormones, and the cortical hormones of the adrenal glands, and their large-scale production when their medicinal potential became obvious.
Djerassi came to the United States in 1939, after fleeing from the Nazis in Austria. He sped through college, after which he spent a brief period working on antihistamines for the Swiss pharmaceutical company CIBA at their New Jersey facility. He then completed a doctorate in organic chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, where he wrote his dissertation on how to transform the male sex hormone testosterone into the female sex hormone estradiol using a series of chemical reactions. Djerassi's longtime fascination with steroids prompted his return to CIBA, but he was not allowed to work on steroid synthesis there. That promising field of research was reserved for the laboratories at CIBA's corporate headquarters in Switzerland. Djerassi was disappointed, and in 1949 he joined Laboratorios Syntex S.A. in Mexico City. In 1951 Djerassi's group successfully synthesized cortisone.
In 1951, the same year that Djerassi's group synthesized cortisone, it also synthesized the first effective oral contraceptive. In 1957 the Food and Drug Administration approved Syntex's norethindrone, first as a treatment for menstrual difficulties and then as a birth-control pill.
Djerassi maintained a 20-year-long relationship with Syntex, while also accepting academic appointments after his 1951 triumphs, first at Wayne State University in Detroit and then at Stanford University. He made many more advances in synthetic organic chemistry and refined the techniques of mass spectroscopy and methods for deducing the precise orientation in space of the atoms in a molecule.
Djerassi, in line with his work on the birth-control pill, seeks to raise consciousness about the global need for population control. Stemming from his years with Syntex have been his efforts to encourage science in developing countries like Mexico. In memory of his daughter, who was an artist, and consonant with his own artistic and literary interests, he has established a colony for artists near San Francisco, California.