RIP Carl Djerassi…and the Importance of the Nobel Prize

February 2nd, 2015

ChemBark MedallionWhenever I get a media inquiry about the annual list of odds for winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, I am always sure to emphasize that the list attempts to address who will win the Nobel, not who should win the Nobel. When reporters follow up with the question, “Well, who should win it?”, my answer is always immediate and unequivocal:

Carl Djerassi.

Djerassi’s contributions to our field are immense (1 2 3)—from synthetic organic chemistry, to natural products, to analytical chemistry and beyond. Djerassi’s signature achievement in the development of oral contraception was earth-shattering to the worlds of chemistry and medicine, and it went on to have profound implications for society at large. Norethindrone changed the world like few molecules had before it.

With Djerassi’s death at the age of 91 last Friday, I will have to come up with a new answer to the question of who should win the next Nobel Prize. Djerassi’s name now ranks among those great chemists who inexplicably never did, on a list that includes titans like G.N. Lewis and Dimitri Mendeleev, whose work remains the foundation on which chemistry is built.

These massive oversights, coupled with jaw-dropping exclusions like Gabor Somorjai in 2007, make it impossible to consider the Nobel Prize as the definitive metric for achievement in chemistry. Is it fun to get excited about? Yes. Is it a high honor? Yes. But despite the massive hype and public reverence surrounding the Prize, it is nothing more.

When someone like Carl Djerassi dies after having had 40 years to be recognized, I simply cannot take the Swedish Academy seriously. With these omissions, made all the more heinous when juxtaposed against a “mistake” like 1996, the Academy continues to chisel away at the institution that is the Nobel. If they keep it up, nobody is going to care much about the Prize in 100 years, because others—more lavish and/or respected—are bound to come along and surpass it in the same way that the once vaunted prizes of horse racing or the NIT championship are now afterthoughts on the modern sports scene.

Last Friday marked the death of another piece of Alfred Nobel’s legacy to honor scientists who confer the “greatest benefit on mankind”. For surely, how could any serious list of this sort fail to include Carl Djerassi?

16 Responses to “RIP Carl Djerassi…and the Importance of the Nobel Prize”

  1. Nick Says:

    I agree with everything you said Paul. In some ways, Djerassi was dissed in 2 categories, as a Nobel in med/phys would also have been apt. By the 1996 “mistake”, do you mean that the prize for C60 was in error, or something more subtle (e.g. the Curl/Kratschmer issue)?

  2. Paul Bracher Says:

    Alfred Nobel’s will stipulated that the Prize be conferred to an achievement in the preceding year, but of course, the Committee waits much longer to ensure that discoveries reported in any given year pan out when exposed to further research and scrutiny. I think the fullerenes prize in 1996 did not wait long enough to see if these molecules were truly significant or useful.

    They were only discovered in 1985, and it wasn’t until 1991 that you could produce them in the volume required to make fullerene research accessible to a wider set of scientists. By 1996, tons of people had hopped on the bandwagon. Hell, my undergrad research starting in 1999 was on C60. But despite all of the hype, nothing especially useful panned out, and people have moved on.

  3. FormerSTMguy Says:

    I fully agree with your view on the 1996 price. Exactly the same applies to the graphene-prize!

  4. bad wolf Says:

    All i can say is, the committee(s) spoke out pretty loudly in giving the Nobel to Edwards for IVF and not any of the contraceptive pioneers. Or to put it another way, zero population growth is incredibly important for the developing world (and the future of the planet)… but the ability to have children when you’re in your forties is incredibly important to the people who choose the prizes.

  5. CMCguy Says:

    I have to wonder if the fact Djerassi worked parts of his career in Industry, not solely in Academia, and was able to accumulate significant income by such associations and then eventually turned to others less scientific endeavors have been held against him in certain circles (as have come across people who spoke negatively when talking about him). Such should not matter however human nature being what it is prejudices are unavoidable.

    About 20+ years ago I might have suggested as your replacement Samuel Danishefsky for breadth of exciting and new Org Syn work but it is not as clear to me that paths he diverged into have continued in contributing as much (plus I have migrated away from keeping up knowledge of big players)

  6. excimer Says:

    Nobel is a science prize, not a technology prize. Fullerenes were a very, very different type of compound from anything seen beforehand when they were discovered, and was a pretty stark revelation at the most basic level. And despite Paul’s protestations of utility, nearly every high-efficiency organic/polymer solar cell uses fullerene derivatives. Same goes for graphene. Graphene’s prize was deserving not necessarily for the discovery of atomically-thin graphene (I think boron nitride came first) but for the magnitude of astounding, never before seen properties it did have. Both prizes were deserving.

    Djerassi probably never got the Nobel the same reason Cotton never did- they were both assholes. Brilliant, but assholes.

  7. Sili Says:

    Wasn’t Pauling a bit of an arsehole as well?

    Anyway, as bad wolf says, someone, somewhere clearly has an agenda. Even ignoring the chemistry, oral contraception should have received the Peace Prize.

  8. excimer Says:

    There is another, slightly more conspiratorial reason for Djerassi not getting the Nobel for contraception- the Catholic church. We all know how much they love contraception, and they’re 1 billion strong and very much have a strong hold in many parts of Europe. The fallout from that would have been like Liu Xiaobo’s win times ten. Stupidly, it is still a politically sensitive issue in countries that Sweden cares about.

  9. bad wolf Says:

    Someone doesn’t like contraception, but is since Sweden is a protestant country i’lm not sure that’s something you can lay at Rome’s door. (Apparently there are more practicing Muslims in Sweden than Catholics.)

  10. PedroS Says:

    I doubt that fear from any fallout from the Catholic Church would be a factor: after all, Dario Fo and José Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature and they were not kind to religion and, especially, to the Catholic Church.

  11. Rhenium Says:

    Meh, I’m ambivalent.
    Lots of people have missed out on Nobel Prizes, lots more deserving people will miss out again.
    Will it detract from the Nobel? No. Ask a chemistry undergrad who Djerassi was and you’ll get a blank stare.

  12. OChemist Says:

    I’m surprised Henry Eyring isn’t mentioned more often. The academy essentially didn’t realize how significant his achievement was until it was considered too late to award him for his work. Ironically now only work that “stands the test of time” is awarded. The Academy even had to end up giving him the “Ooops we goofed” prize later down the road.

  13. SoylentGreen Says:

    Exactly as excimer said, he was a complete asshole. He was a brilliant and influential scientist for sure. I think he just alienated far too many people to have any legitimate chance at the Nobel.

  14. Hap Says:

    It just seems strange that you can be a mass murderer and get a Nobel Prize but not a nutweasel.

  15. The Iron Chemist Says:

    @Hap: That’s mostly the Peace Prize. Well, and the lobotomy guy.

    A lot of jerks have won the Nobel, and you essentially have to be legendary in that regard to miss out on one solely because of it. Having attended Stanford and having personally seen Djerassi’s interactions with his colleagues, grad students, staff, etc., I regrettably have to support SoylentGreen’s assessment.

  16. CuriosityH Says:

    Maybe you could tell me which of the previous organic Nobels did not deserve it so that Carl could take his. Of course with more talented people than prizes, others will miss out. But that does not mean the ones who got it did not deserve it. I will take a 1/10th of the career of any of the organic awardees. They all deserve the prize and the Nobel will continue to be the only prize in science where it is not your pedigree or who is writing your letter for the award but the contribution one actually made for science.

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