The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse: The Autobiography of Carl Djerassi
The 'Abortion Pill'
The world population now increases by 1.7 percent (90 million) per year, while production of cereals is increasing by only 0.9 percent per year. During the past twenty years there have been about 200 million hunger-related deaths; the growing food deficit may raise that number five-fold in the next twenty years. The population of some of the poorest countries is growing fastest. Bangladesh, with a land area smaller than that of Wisconsin, now has a population of 114 million, which is expected to outstrip the present population of the United States, 240 million, in about thirty years’ time. What will happen to these poor people? Even if by some miracle of science enough food could be produced to feed them, how could they find the gainful employment needed to buy it? These prospects are so grim to contemplate that both the Pope and the White House are reported to have forced the recent conference on the environment at Rio to ignore them.
Tragically, the population explosion is the result of the North’s least controversial contribution to the South, the prolongation of life by modern medicine and hygiene, or, as Viktor Weisskopf put it, the introduction of death control without birth control.
Carl Djerassi, the inventor of the contraceptive pill, and Etienne-Emile Baulieu, the inventor of the abortion pill, have provided the means to avert or at least mitigate the catastrophe. Both their autobiographies express bitterness that religious and political pressures are preventing the introduction of these pills into some of the countries that need them most.
Djerassi, who was brought up in Vienna, came to New York just before World War II with twenty dollars in his pocket, and thirty years later he had become a world-famous scientist and millionaire. Fortunately when he arrived at the age of sixteen he had a first-class high-school education and a good knowledge of English. He had the cheek to ask Eleanor Roosevelt to find him a college scholarship and, even more remarkably, she responded by forwarding his letter to the Institute for International Education, which found him a scholarship at Tarkio College, Missouri, a Presbyterian school of twenty teachers and 140 students. After a year he was offered a room, board, and tuition scholarship at the Episcopalian Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where, during the next year, he obtained the bachelor’s degree in chemistry, needed in wartime, he tells us, in order to be drafted into the army as an officer rather than an enlisted man. However, a lame knee kept him out of the army, and he found a job with a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey instead. While working there he attended night classes in chemistry at New York University and the Brooklyn Polytechnic, helped to synthesize one of the first antihistamines and got his name on a patent, all in one year. The next step was an Alumni Research Foundation Scholarship at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where Djerassi obtained his Ph.D. in chemistry in two years at…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.