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Carl Djerassi
Roald Hoffmann

Manuel João Monte

In 1777, Gustaf III of Sweden invites the three famous chemists Lavoisier, Priestley and Sceele to a Ballo in Maschera, where the issue of who had first discovered Oxigen is to be settled once and for all. In 2001 the notion of discovery is discussed in the Nobel Commitee as they attempt to award the first Retro-Nobel. In this fiction by Djerassi and Hoffmann, more than credit for the discovery of Oxigen (the theme of both encounters in the play), the great thematic questions are what is a discovery and why is it so important to be the first one to make one.

Editora da Universidade do Porto


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.



Roald Hoffmann

According to his own website (, Roald Hoffmann was born in 1937 in Złoczów, Poland. Having survived World War II, he came to the U.S. in 1949, and studied Chemistry at Columbia and Harvard Universities (Ph.D. 1962). He has been at Cornell University since 1965, now as the Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters, Emeritus. He has received many of the honours of his profession, including the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (shared with Kenichi Fukui).


At Cornell, Hoffmann taught Introductory Chemistry for about half of his time there. Also notable is his outreach to the general public; he was the presenter, for example, of a television course in Chemistry titled “The World of Chemistry,” broadcasted widely since 1990.


As a writer, Hoffmann carved out a path across science, poetry, and philosophy through his numerous essays, five non-fiction books, three plays and seven published poetry collections, including bilingual Spanish-English and Russian-English editions published in Madrid and Moscow.

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