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An Immaculate Misconception – Sex in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction

An Immaculate Misconception – Sex in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Carl Djerassi


Impregnation of a woman’s egg by a fertile man in normal intercourse requires tens of millions of sperm – as many as 100 million in one ejaculate. . Successful fertilization with one singe sperm is a total impossibility, considering that a man ejaculating even 1-3 million sperm is functionally infertile. But in 1992, Gianpiero Palermo, Hubert Joris, Paul Devroey and André C. Van Steirteghem from the University of Brussels published their sensational paper in Lancet, 340, 17 (1992), in which they announced the successful fertilization of a human egg with a singlesperm by direct injection under the microscope, followed by reinsertion of the egg into the woman’s uterus. ICSI – the accepted acronym for “intracytoplasmic sperm injection” – has now become the most powerful tool for the treatment of male infertility: over 10 000 ICSI babies have already been born since 1992.


This is the factual background of ICSI. But because “An Immaculate Misconception is a play, all characters and events, though not the actual science, are fictional – especially Dr. Melanie Laidlaw, ICSI’s putative inventor. ICSI’s ethical problems, however, remain even after the curtain has dropped.

1-86094-248-2 (pbk)
Imperial College Press


Carl Djerassi

Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1923, son of Samuel Djerassi and Alice Friedmann, Carl Djerassi spent the first years of his infancy in Sofia, Bulgaria, until the rise of the Nazi regime and the beginning of World War II forced him and his mother to escape to the United States in 1939.


He completed his undergraduate studies at age 18 at Kenyon College where, in his own words, he “became a chemist”. He completed his PhD in 1945 at the University of Wisconsin before joining CIBA Pharmaceuticals as a research chemist, where he developed one of the first commercial antihistamines (Pyribenzamine). In 1949, he accepted a position as associate director of research for Syntex in Mexico City. There, he and his colleagues advanced hormone synthesis methods, including that leading to oral contraceptives, research that profoundly changed science and society ever since.


In 1952, Djerassi joined the faculty of Wayne State University, and the faculty of Stanford in 1959, while working as the president of Syntex Research. In 1968, he founded Zoecon, a company aimed at pest control through the use of hormones.


Djerassi produced more than 1,200 scientific papers. He made seminal contributions to tools for structural studies, including mass spectrometry, magnetic circular dichroism, and optical rotatory dispersion. He was also a pioneer in his contributions to the understanding of biosynthesis in natural marine products. In a collaboration with Joshua Lederberg, Nobel laureate, and computer scientist Edward Feigenbaum, he has devised the computer program DENDRAL for the elucidation of the molecular structure.


Not only was he an inspiring educator and mentor, but he was also an important advocate for women in science. He was acknowledged with several awards, including the National Medal of Science (1973), the National Medal of Technology (1991), and the Priestley Medal (1992) — the highest honour of the American Chemical Society. He was appointed to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Among other forms of recognition, he fondly remembered the postal stamp issued in 2005 by the Austrian Post Office in his honour.


Carl Djerassi was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, The Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society (in London), the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, the Academia Europeae, the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, as well as of the Mexican, Bulgarian, and Brazilian ones. He received 32 honorary doctorates.


In the 1980’s, Djerassi left his scientific career in order to write novels, poetry and drama. He initially wrote tales, poems and “science-in-fiction”, focusing on the human side of scientists and the personal conflicts they face in their quest for scientific knowledge, personal recognition, and financial rewards. He produced five novels, numerous short stories and poems, and several autobiographical works, as well as research and poetry collections and a book of memoires. From 1997 onwards, his work focused on drama, initially within the genre of “science-in-theatre”, including plays such as “Calculus”, “Oxygen”, “Phallacy”, “Taboos”, “Ego”, “Three on a Couch”, “Insufficiency”, and “Foreplay”, all of them produced in several different countries (namely the Marionet productions of “Cálculo” and “Ego”).


In memory of his daughter, a poet and an artist, he established the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, California, in 1982. He was a patron of the arts and has donated his vast collection of works by Paul Klee to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and to Albertina, in Vienna.


Carl Djerassi, Professor Emeritus of chemistry, novelist, playwright, patron of the arts and pioneer in the production of the contraceptive pill, died in his house in San Francisco on the 30th of January 2015, at 91 years of age.

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