The Rewards Of Intellectual Bigamy

Carl Djerassi's two track career in academia has brought him both fame and wealth STANFORD, CALIF.--If there's any doubt that a scientist can honorably serve two masters, Carl Djerassi stands as living proof. For the last 36 years, the chemist has been a self-described "intellectual bigamist"--partaking of the freedom of academia while churning out discovery after lucrative discovery for industry. And while other scientists, particularly in the fields of biotechnology and computer science, h

Virginia Morell
Jan 22, 1989

Carl Djerassi's two track career in academia has brought him both fame and wealth

STANFORD, CALIF.--If there's any doubt that a scientist can honorably serve two masters, Carl Djerassi stands as living proof. For the last 36 years, the chemist has been a self-described "intellectual bigamist"--partaking of the freedom of academia while churning out discovery after lucrative discovery for industry. And while other scientists, particularly in the fields of biotechnology and computer science, have walked the delicate line between academic and commercial science, few can match Djerassi's juggling act for success and longevity.

A professor of chemistry at Stanford University since 1960, Djerassi has directed or founded four companies, synthesized the first oral contraceptive, pioneered the synthesis of cortisone from plants, developed new applications for such standard organic chemistry tools as the mass spectrometer, published 1,150 papers and eight books--and become a millionaire. Not bad for a man who arrived in the U.S. as a penniless 16-year old wartime refugee.

"I'm basically a very intellectually polygamous person," Djerassi explains. "Having the dual career has been good for me. I think it made me a much better teacher because I could tell my students what went on in the real world, the industrial world where at least half of our graduate students end up. At the same time, it made me a much more effective and innovative industrial research leader by being myself active in academic research, in keeping up to date with what was going on."

But Djerassi's double-track path through science could have been smoother. During his whole career the 65-year-old scientist has had to battle the pervasive perception that industrial chemists just aren't as worthy as their university counterparts. Some of his colleagues believe that Djerassi has been passed over for important prizes, perhaps even the Nobel, because of this academic snobbery. Djerassi himself will admit to a different regret, that the pressures of making good in two separate worlds of science took their toll on his life outside science.

Certainly, his professional success wouldn't have been possible without driving ambition, a love of hard work, and an extraordinarily well-organized approach to life. Even now, nearly every hour of every Djerassi day (including lunch) is rigorously scheduled. "Carl is the only man I know who can make a 24-hour day last 25 hours," laughs George Rosenkranz, a colleague of Djerassi since 1950. Djerassi is also something of a maverick, a man determined to do things his way, and without this enterprising trait it is unlikely that he would have pursued his double career.

In fact, Djerassi deliberately set out to bridge two worlds of science. His goal as a graduate student was to get a tenured academic position by the time he was 30. But when he received his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin in 1945, he didn't want to start crawling up the low-paying rungs of the academic ladder--and he was naive enough not to recognize the disdain university chemists held for their industrial counterparts. So he accepted a position as senior chemist at Ciba Pharmaceutical Co. in New Jersey, where he had worked before going to graduate school.

"From the time I got my Ph.D., I knew I wanted to do academic research," Djerassi says, "but I didn't want to do it in the usual way. I didn't want to be an instructor, then an assistant professor, an associate professor. Instead, I thought I'd establish a real research reputation in industry and then get a job at tenure level. Well, I hadn't realized how few people had managed to do that at that time. So when I was ready to switch, I had a hell of a time finding any academic job."

At Ciba, Djerassi had his own lab and lab assistants. He hoped to pursue the research on steroids--chemical compounds that include the male and female sex hormones, and adrenal cortisone--which he had started at Wisconsin. But he soon discovered one of the verities of industrial research: The company had other plans for him. Ciba's work on steroids would be done primarily in its Switzerland labs, while Djerassi was asked to continue with the antihistamine work that he had started during a yearlong stint at Ciba after finishing his undergraduate studies at Ohio's Kenyon College. "Of course you never have the freedom in industry that you have when working in academia," says Djerassi. "But they did permit me to do some [steroid] research of my own."

Djerassi capitalized on what latitude he was allowed at Ciba and during the next four years published several papers on steroids. Then, feeling that he had established a sound reputation in the field, he made his first bid for an academic post. He applied to four or five universities--and was soundly rebuffed. "No one was interested," Djerassi recalls. "And I felt a little bitter about this. But it was also naive of me. I think only one man had done this before in organic chemistry, gone from industry to academia and that was John Sheehan, who had been a junior chemist at Merck [before going to MIT]. Also I had no mentor, no one pushing me, and you really need someone like this in the academic world."

Still Djerassi was anxious to leave Ciba. The therapeutical benefits of using cortisone to treat arthritis had just been discovered, and Djerassi wanted to be part of the effort to develop a commercially viable method of synthesizing the steroid. But Ciba turned him down again--the work would be done in Switzerland.

If Djerassi was ignored by university chemists, he was not, however, an unknown quantity to industrial researchers. Nor were they all blind to his interest and talent in working with steroids. Shortly after Ciba refused Djerassi's request, the unhappy scientist received a call from a small firm in Mexico City named Syntex. Company scientists were planning to synthesize cortisone from plant material and wondered if Djerassi would join them. "I knew Carl and his capabilities from his publications," says George Rosenkranz, then head of Syntex's research team. "When he came to see us, he could see how we were doing things very simply, improvising, and he fell in love with that. It was not the usual big industrial thing."

Djerassi recalls that he immediately liked Rosenkranz and Rosenkranz's vision, and he decided to accept Syntex's offer. "Most people I knew said, ~`How can you do chemistry in Mexico?' But it turned out to be actually a very wise decision. I was able to work on one of the hottest problems in organic chemistry, the synthesis of cortisone, and I got a lot of visibility because our research came from such an unbelievably unlikely place."

Certainly, Syntex was the darkest horse in the race to synthesize cortisone. Besides Ciba, other competitors included Merck, and Harvard and Oxford Universities, whose labs were among the most sophisticated in the world. Djerassi's lab at Syntex was, by comparison, a "garage," recalls one of his friends.

"That's true, our labs were not fancy, but the equipment was quite satisfactory," says Djerassi. "What I really lacked at Ciba was enough technical assistance--pairs of hands--and that Syntex guaranteed me. They also agreed to buy an infrared spectrometer, a piece of equipment that Ciba did not have. But most important, I was very sure of my own capabilities."

Together Djerassi and Rosenkranz set up a schedule that kept their lab running day and night during the last three months of their two year effort to synthesize cortisone. And they didn't keep quiet about it either; every time they had a breakthrough, Djerassi published it. "That was the most productive time I've ever had anywhere, those first two years at Syntex," Djerassi says. "We didn't just publish one paper; we published 40 or 50, and we were beating everyone."

"Everybody hated their guts down there," recalls Gilbert Stork, now Higgins Professor of Chemistry at Columbia University. At the time, Stork was an assistant professor at Harvard, but Djerassi had also retained him as a consultant to Syntex. "They were considered interlopers, a bunch of dubious characters. But they were also publishing furiously and scooping everybody."

By June 1951, Syntex's marathon pace had paid off. That month Djerassi and Rosenkranz synthesized cortisone, beating their closest competitors by three weeks. It was an amazing success story, one reported by magazines and newspapers around the world. But much to Djerassi's disappointment, academia did not rush to embrace the victor.

In fact, Djerassi continued working at Syntex for more than a year before a single university called to express interest. And when his telephone finally rang, the call came from Wayne State University, a relatively obscure college in Detroit, Michigan. (In retrospect, Djerassi believes that this obscurity was a key factor in his later success. "To do first-class research in two such places--Syntex, which no one had heard of in industry, and Wayne, which was close to the bottom of the academic totem pole--was much more noticeable than if I had done it in a first-class place.")

Wayne State had launched a program to improve its chemistry department, and had brought in a former classmate of Djerassi's, Calvin Stevens, to chair the department. "He knew I was looking for a job. And they agreed to hire me as an assistant professor, with an assurance of being promoted to full professor within a year. That was the only academic job I was offered, so I took it."

By this circuitous route Djerassi accomplished his goal of getting tenure by age 30. And, for the first time, he had a foot in two camps. For five years, he continued at Syntex as a consultant while teaching and doing research at Wayne State. "That was the first truly bigamist involvement," Djerassi says about this phase of his career. "I had a large research group at Wayne, and I was actively directing research at Syntex, and there I was both a coauthor and inventor of many patents."

In 1957, the chemist stepped up his involvement with Syntex, taking a position as full-time vice president for research. He continued, however, to run his lab at Wayne. It was a potentially sticky situation, but Djerassi avoided charges of ethical conflict by pursuing two separate areas of research. From that point on,"I was always extremely careful that the two things would not be related, and I never accepted industrial support for my academic research," he says. "So at Syntex, I was working on steroids, while at Wayne I was working on alkaloids, triterpenes, optical rotary dispersion. Most of that research was supported by the NIH."

Djerassi's excellent work in both fields did not go unnoticed. And by fortuitous circumstance, William Johnson, one of Djerassi's professors at the University of Wisconsin who had recently moved to Stanford, had a job to offer. "Stanford wanted me to upgrade their chemistry department and had hired me as the chairman," says Johnson. "And Carl was my choice. He had a fantastic number of publications at a very young age and looked like he would go far. And he had the personality that would help the department become visible. I also knew that his first love was academic work and teaching. He had already proved that he was a man of real integrity, that he wouldn't allow one career to encroach on the other."

It appeared that Djerassi had finally overcome the industrial stigma that had first stymied his academic career. In 1960, he joined Johnson at Stanford, taking an office directly below the chairman's--the same offices the two men occupy today--and found himself, at long last, in a university that fully appreciated his skills--both as a scientist and as the entrepreneur he would prove to be. Stanford was then just embarking on the path that would make it today's model for combining university and industrial research, and Djerassi was one of its pioneers. For the next 23 years, he managed to run a large and productive lab at the university while continuing his work at Syntex, and helping to found two new companies and serving on the board of ten others. And thanks to shares he had purchased in Syntex, and to the spectacular success of the company, he quickly became a millionaire.

Yet even after Syntex moved its research operation, and later its corporate headquarters to Palo Alto, so as to be closer to Djerassi, the chemist he maintained a clear cut line between his industrial work and his university research.

"When I was his student [1967-1970], I frankly knew nothing about what was going on in Carl's industrial life," says John Diekman, now president of Monoclonal Antibodies in Mountain View, Calif. "I knew he was a very senior executive at Syntex, but I didn't know what he was doing up there."

Today, after 29 years at Stanford, Djerassi no longer teaches chemistry courses--though he does teach a seminar and several classes in the university's Human Biology program, acts as an thesis superviser to graduate students in organic chemistry, and continues his research into the steroids marine organisms. And although he is no longer employed by any companies, he sits on the boards of Cetus, Teknowledge, Monoclonal Antibodies, Vitaphore, and Affymax, companies that specialize in genetic engineering or artificial intelligence, and is not adverse to the idea of being involved with another start-up firm.

Yet he does not wholeheartedly recommend his particular career path. He believes that the disdain of academics for industrial scientists has caused his own university research to be largely ignored. "Since coming to Stanford, the awards I've received from the American Chemical Society have all been for my industrial work, none for my academic research, yet I've been in academia for over 30 years," he says, then adds with a shrug, "C'est la vie."

The enormous pressure of operating in two worlds has also taken its toll on his personal life--Djerassi is twice-divorced--and he thinks today that, if he had it to do all over, he would not have lived at such a fast-track pace. "Three years ago," he recalls, "I was diagnosed as having cancer [of the colon], and in the hospital, I became extraordinarily introspective. I discovered that I am mortal. And I thought, `What if I'd known five years ago that I would get cancer, would I have behaved differently, lived differently?' And the answer was a categoric yes."

Djerassi's cancer is in remission today, but admits to reducing his corporate and research responsibilities as he pursues his "third intellectual career" and shares a somewhat less hectic life with his new wife. But his pace hasn't slowed very much; the first fruit of his new career, a collection of short stories named The Futurist and Other Stories, was published last month by Maxwell Communications. And his first novel, Cantor's Dilemma, is due out this summer from Doubleday.

For younger scientists bent on pursuing a career mixing academia and industry, Djerassi offers this advice: "I think I was always operating at 98% efficiency; so there was only 2% percent left for other things, for my personal life. I would say 89% efficiently is also doing very well; give yourself at least 11% percent for doing something else."

Virginia Morell is writing a biography of the Leakey family for Simon and Schuster.