Thursday, December 27, 2007

Book Club: From the Lab into the World

From the Lab into the World
A Pill for People, Pets, and Bugs
Carl Djerassi, 1994
American Chemical Society, Washington, DC, USA

This is a book of essays, some much longer than others, written by a prominent and highly successful organic chemist. Most of these 24 essays concern human reproduction and population control, not surprising considering the author was highly involved (some would say responsible for) the invention of the first birth-control pill (norethindrone). Later essays wander through other territories of particular interest to Dr. Djerassi, including population control in pets (dogs and cats), women in science, and finally art patronage.

The chapters are grouped into three primary sections, “Birth Control and Contraceptive Research”, describing the author’s role and experiences working for pharmaceutical companies developing industrial methods for mass synthesis of steroid hormones; “Future Prospects in Birth Control”, including an essay about male contraception; and “Miscellaneous Topics” covering everything else. The essays were written between 1970 and 1993, with some commentary in the form of footnotes describing changes that occurred since the essays were written.

Dr. Djerassi’s tone throughout the essays concerned with human population control is consistently very pessimistic, a fact he points out explicitly in several places. For example, in some essays written in 1970 he describes the very long time frame for development (11 years absolute minimum) of a male contraceptive pill and the associated poor regulatory and commercial incentive environment. At times he mentions in the essay how pessimistic he feels about the hypothetical developments he’s describing, at other times footnotes written in 1994 exclaim how his most pessimistic predictions turned out to be true.

I could not stop myself from comparing this book to the few collections of essays by Dr. Steven J. Gould I have read in the past few years. Unlike Dr. Gould’s essays, Dr. Djerassi’s presented here were not published on a regular schedule in a single general-readership magazine. Gould wrote literally hundreds of essays, one per month, for Natural History Magazine, most of which were quite similar in length. Djerassi published these highly varied essays in bursts of output, with other publications (the blurb at the beginning says “more than 1200 papers and 13 books”) in several different journals, including Science, the Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the New England Journal of Medicine, among others, as well as one essay as a chapter in an edited volume. The longest essay, chapter 6 “Reversible Fertility Control” is 18 pages long; the shortest are several chapters only 2 pages long each. This partly reflects the variation in publication history – chapter 6 was originally published in the Proceedings of the XXIIIrd International Congress of Pure and Applied Chemistry in 1971, one of the shortest chapters was a letter to the editor of Science.

Besides the differences in publication history and format, these essays have a very different tone compared to Gould’s work (that I’ve read so far). Where Gould reads like a history or science-class lecture converted to literature, Djerassi reads like a very dry explanation of a single key point. I’ve already mentioned the (warranted) pessimism, but Djerassi also writes in a tone that proceeds carefully and thoroughly from A to B, without the short tangents or woven threads of Gould’s writing.
I picked this book up at a steep discount from the bookseller who periodically sets up temporarily in the University Centre at the University of Guelph – I needed to pass through the building for some other reason, probably I was going to the post office. After I read the foreword, in which Djerassi describes collecting and sorting his essays for this volume, I was quite excited to get into this book. This is mainly due to Gould’s not infrequent reflections on essay-writing as a skill and as an art form that he (Gould) thought should be more prominent among the skills and productions of a scientist – here is another collection of essays by a different scientist, working in a completely different field; Gould’s name never appears in this book, so I assume Djerassi was not motivated to produce this book by reading some of Gould’s exhortations. My excitement was not misplaced; this is a good and thought-provoking read, dealing with some topics of high importance and historical (and ongoing) controversy. I am tempted to attempt to write essays myself, perhaps I will find time and willpower to do so. Sorry, given the recent (and not-so-recent) history of this blog, don’t hold your breath.

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