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A bitter pill to swallow

Obituary: Carl Djerassi, the father of science-in-fiction

Jennifer Rohn 6 March 2015

Photo credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation

He was strongly focused on his quest to promote "science-in-fiction", a term he coined. Because of this, conversations with him were sometimes a bit one-sided

A lot has been aired about Carl Djerassi since his sad death from cancer at the end of January. Most write-ups have focused on his role in the development of oral contraceptives, so I won't mention his exploits in chemistry any further. In many ways, the Pill-centric view of the various eulogies and obituaries is unfortunate, because I suspect that he would also have liked the world to dwell more on his literary endeavors, to which he devoted decades of unrelenting energy in the latter part of his life.

I first met Djerassi in 2004, in the autumn before launched. I can't track down the original email exchange; I think I wrote to him for advice about getting my novels published, and he wrote back that as he was going to be in Cambridge soon for the revival of two of his science plays, why didn't I take the train from London and meet him? Needless to say I was thrilled, and the result of this interview was published in March 2005. After that point, we struck up a friendship. We exchanged occasional emails, and I met with him several times in his London home. I saw a few of his plays and reviewed them for, and he once ran a draft of one of his plays-in-progress by me for comment.

Djerassi was not the easiest of people. He was strongly focused on his quest to promote his impressive array of activities and works of "science-in-fiction", a term he coined. Because of this, conversations with him were sometimes a bit one-sided. The day I first met his late wife, Diane Middlebrook, for example, I wasn't able to get in even a few sentences about her biography of Anne Sexton, which I intensely admired.

Then there was Djerassi's blind-spot about the lab lit genre. In an odd way, he seemed immune to the fact that science-in-fiction actually had made good progress since the grim dark ages before 1990, that the world had moved on, that non-stereotypical scientist characters were being published more and more each year. As documented these modest victories, Djerassi didn't seem interested in acknowledging their existence, let alone discussing them with me.

Above all there were his views about using science-in-fiction as a medium to generate didactic discussion about science and what the scientific profession is like – the use of fiction essentially as a pedagogical tool. This was a topic on which we clashed vigorously. For me, fiction's main function is to entertain, and overt didacticism is a flaw. For him, overt didacticism was the whole point. He once almost severed our friendship when I gave a lecture at a humanities conference, stating (politely I thought) that I did not share Djerassi's aim of using fiction for educational purposes. Unbeknownst to me, someone had taped my speech, and when my words got back to him, he was furious.

After writing four lab lit novels, science plays became his passion and later, the idea that plays on the page (as opposed to on the stage) should be used as an educational tool. When his final illness prevented him from joining me in London for several events in 2012 intended to promote this cause, he was bitterly disappointed that his message did not get across in his absence the way he would have liked it to. (As he wrote in typical acerbic style to me, "I am sorry I could not participate … because people (incl. you) miss a very important point.") Sadly, with his death, I suspect that his mission may never catch on.

Djerassi was a force of nature. When I met him he was already in his eighties – and in the decade following, his ceaseless globe-trotting, in tireless pursuit of promoting his ideas and works, would have put off someone half his age. After the death of his wife, he seemed temporarily defeated, but still he carried grimly on. Even through his struggle with cancer, he was trying to act as if nothing serious was afoot. In October of 2012 he wrote to me, "My cancer... diagnosis is unambiguous and so is the treatment of radiation plus monoclonal antibody treatment – both of them with rather unpleasant side effects. I shall start all of it in mid December and if everything works out (at least a 50% chance, perhaps even better), I shall resume my workaholic triangular commuting [between Stanford, London and Vienna] around April [2013]." In the last email I have from him, in April 2014, he was inviting me to the opening of his new work, Foreplay. "While not a science play," he wrote, "it is written by a scientist and I wonder whether you would like to cover it [in]?"

With a pang, I realize now that I never even answered this email, let alone saw the play, embroiled as I was in the struggle to return to work after becoming a new mother to a sleepless baby son. I deeply regret that neglect now. Despite his focus and relentless self-promotion, his emails always took the time to praise me on various successes he noticed with my books ("I was pleased to see that your novel has come out and was reviewed in Nature. I hope that more will follow…") and other endeavors ("While getting my hair cut, I read your World View article on women scientists … which was absolutely first class. I am sending it to some women colleagues of mine. CONGRATULATIONS"). Despite our differences in ideology, I feel privileged to have known such an original and pivotal individual.

And as far as the cause of enhancing the profile and inclusion of science in fiction, we were always on the same page.