Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was born in Vienna. He revolutionised the field of female contraception when he and his team of chemists produced synthetic progesterone which led to the development of the first oral contraceptive pill. [Listener: Tamara Tracz]
TRANSCRIPT: So I used that in- for years, for decades. I had lots of graduate students and post docs working in this area, and at the same time as we developed the methods, we also used them for the structural elucidation of more and more complex molecules, and methods such as mass spectrometry, or spectroscopic methods, such as infrared, ultraviolet, nuclear magnetic resonance, are non, non, non destructive methods. It’s like, you know, when you carry out an x-ray of a, of a person, or a MRI of a person, when you put them in, in the instrument, you know, and the x-ray, and a radiologist in some, but they don’t destroy you, and of course hopefully they don’t, they just get the picture and you’re still there. Well, the same thing is with instruments, with spectroscopic methods, you take this compound, you either dissolve it, or even with a crystal, you analyse the spectrum but you still have the material there, which is quite important, because non-destructive methods of analysis mean that you can apply it to things which are very, very rare, of which you have only very small, small amounts. And that ability to analyse smaller- and to determine the structures of smaller and smaller amounts of material, extended the power of structural elucidation enormously. If you think about it, let’s say the structure of Morphine, or Strychnine, we’re taking two molecules, which are very famous natural products. Morphine is a constituent of the poppy, and you know, Strychnine is from the strychnos plants. Chemists worked for decades on these. There was a German chemist working on Strychnine, who spent his entire life essentially, on the chemical structure of Strychnine, and gradually got more- never solved the entire structure, but got many pieces of it, but he needed hundreds and hundreds of grams of this. Well, to use the opposite extreme, the last sort of, natural products chemistry I did in the last 20 years, and I think with that I’ll be able to, sort of, end the, almost the chemical story I could say, of my chemical work, we work so little that in some cases you couldn’t even see the material, and yet we could tell what the entire room looks like, which is really quite extraordinary, but means you need very, very little material, or you have only very little material, and that you can only do through physical methods, and not through chemical manipulation. And once we reach that point, and we’re pretty well at that point now, we chemists, I don’t mean the royal we of Carl Djerassi, but we chemists, it means that we have destroyed- We’ve made a major advance forward; we can do certain things much more rapidly, with much smaller amounts of material, but in some respects in a much less interesting way. We’re just using black boxes any way- really, well, I was going to say, artificial methodology, which is the wrong word, but it leads me to the one methodology that I forgot to mention.