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09-14-1999

Noted Chemist, Author And Playwright Carl Djerassi To Deliver Shipley Lecture At Clarkson University Sept. 30

Back at the turn of this century, if a couple wanted to avoid unwanted pregnancy, they had to take precautions, and that meant condoms, IUDs, and diaphragms. On the other end of the spectrum, fertile women had no trouble conceiving, but infertile women were out of luck.

Within the last 50 years, however, three major medical advances have given women the opportunity to control their reproductive destinies. The introduction of the female contraceptive pill in the 1950s brought with it not only reproductive freedom, which allowed women to postpone motherhood, but sexual freedom as well. 

If medical advances helped forestall pregnancy and childbirth, then two other major breakthroughs in the latter part of this century made it possible to create life through medical science. The first successful implementation of in-vitro fertilization more than two decades ago gave hope to infertile women who wanted to have a child.  And with the development of intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) seven years ago, women were afforded the possibility of having a child in their late 30s and early 40s.

As reproductive options have changed, so has sex.  The question is, just how much?  Noted chemist, author and playwright Carl Djerassi of Stanford University will address this question in a lecture titled “Sex in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” part of the fifth Shipley Distinguished Lectureship presented by Clarkson University’s Center for Advanced Materials Processing (CAMP).

The lecture takes place on Wednesday, September 29, at 4:15 p.m. in the Science Center, Room 360.  A second lecture, titled “Noble Science and Nobel Lust: Disclosing Tribal Secrets,” will be presented on Thursday, September 30, at 10 a.m. in CAMP Room 176.  The public is cordially invited to attend both lectures.  Students attending the lectures will receive a complimentary copy of one or more of his books.

“Sex and reproduction have changed dramatically during the second half of this century through the pill and in vitro fertilization,” said Djerassi, whose work in synthesizing the first steroid oral contraceptive in earned him the National Medal of Science in 1973.  “One prevents reproduction during sexual intercourse and the other furthering it in the absence of sexual intercourse.

“At present, most scientific efforts are concentrating on assisted reproduction or improved sexual performance rather than contraception.  Not too far in the future, sex and reproduction will be separate --one in bed and the other under the microscope-- with major social repercussions among the affluent countries.”

Djerassi will discuss these points through the use of the last two volumes of his science-in-fiction tetralogy.  Menachem’s Seed deals with ICSI, while NO deals with erectile dysfunction.  A video excerpt from his newest play, An Immaculate Misconception, will also be shown, graphically detailing the ISCI procedure.

The second lecture, “Noble Science and Nobel Lust: Disclosing Tribal Secrets,” opens the doors to a world many in the non-scientific community never knew existed.

Djerassi says scientists operate within a tribal culture with its own set of rules, mores and idiosyncrasies which aren’t learned through lectures or books, but by a form of intellectual osmosis in the relationship between mentor and protégé.  Scientific “street smarts” are learned by observing a mentor’s self interests, including tenure, journal choice and even Nobel lust.  What’s more, says Djerassi, young scientists discover a world of glass ceilings for women and brutal competition among peers, all in the name of personal recognition and financial gain.  Put into that context, the scientific world isn’t as stuffy as it sometimes is made out to be.

“To me– as a scientific tribesman for over four decades-- it is important that the public does not look at scientists primarily as nerds, Frankensteins or Strangeloves,” said Djerassi in explaining the reasoning behind the lecture.

Born in Vienna and educated at Kenyon College and the University of Wisconsin, Djerassi is the author of over 1,200 scientific publications and seven monographs.  He is one of the few American scientists to have been awarded both the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology, which was presented to him in 1991 for promoting new approaches to insect control.
Djerassi is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as many foreign academies.  He has received 17 honorary doctorates together with numerous other honors, such as the first Wolf Prize in Chemistry, the first Award for the Industrial Application of Science from the National Academy of Sciences, and the Priestley Medal, the American Chemical Society’s highest honor.

Besides his research work, Djerassi has been writing books for a decade, primarily in the “science-in-fiction” genre, where he illustrates, in the guise of realistic fiction, the human side of scientists and the personal conflicts faced by scientists in their quest for scientific knowledge, personal recognition, and financial rewards.  Works include novels such as Cantor’s Dilemma; The Bourbaki Gambit; Marx, deceased; Menachem’s Seed; and NO, and short stories such as The Futurist and Other Stories.  He is also the author of an autobiography titled The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas’ Horse.

Djerassi has recently embarked on a trilogy of plays, which he describes in his Web site as “science-in-theatre,” with an emphasis on contemporary cutting-edge research in the biomedical sciences.  The first, An Immaculate Misconception, debuted in abbreviated form at the 1998 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and subsequently as a full, two-act play in London, San Francisco and Vienna this year.  The play focuses on the ethical issues inherent in recent spectacular advances in the treatment of male infertility through single sperm injection (the ICSI technique). He is also the founder of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program near Woodside, Calif., which provides residencies and studio space for artists in the visual arts, literature, choreography and performing arts, and music.  Over 1000 artists have passed through that program since its inception in 1982.

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Michael P. Griffin, director of News & Digital Content Services, at 315-268-6716 or mgriffin@clarkson.edu.]

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