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Celebrating Newark, New Jersey, on the 50th Anniversary of The Pill

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(Newark, NJ) - Back when the seeds of war were sowing in Austria, a young Carl Djerassi and his family left to seek refuge—first to Sofia, Bulgaria (his father’s homeland) and then to America.  The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was responsible for placing the young Djerassi with the Meier family of Newark, New Jersey. Mr. Meier was an industrial chemist who worked for Engelhardt Company, and Mrs. Meier was a high school teacher in Newark.

Djerassi thrived as a member of the Meier family, which included two sons close to him in age.  Family life in their home, Djerassi has written, “was an example of everything good and decent in America:  liberal, generous, caring.”  The Meier boys, August and Paul, as well as Djerassi, went on to distinguished careers in academia.

In Newark, Djerassi also found a caring and generous atmosphere while a student at Newark Junior College (no longer in existence) where he built on his already excellent knowledge of English. At Newark Junior College he also took a small introductory chemistry class, taught by an engaging and devoted teacher, setting the young Carl’s career in motion.

As the son of two physician parents, Djerassi had grown up expecting to pursue either medicine or law as a profession, but this exposure to chemistry early on changed his mind. After graduating Newark Junior College he went to Tarkio College in Missouri (also now defunct), then to Kenyon College in Ohio where he earned his undergraduate degree, and finally to the University of Wisconsin where he earned his doctoral degree. He is now emeritus professor at Stanford University.

But Djerassi’s name is known worldwide for something he achieved while working in the chemical industry, before pursuing a career in academia. In 1951 he and his research team, working for Syntex in Mexico City, synthesized the oral contraceptive norethindrone progestin, earning him eventual renown as “the father of The Pill.”  The 50th anniversary of The Pill has been celebrated this year by marking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval in May of 1960.

Djerassi’s subsequent career in chemistry has brought him many patents, honors and awards, including the National Medal of Science. Not satisfied with achievements just in science, in his 60s he embarked on a second career in the arts, and has achieved further fame as a novelist, playwright, collector and philanthropist.

In May 2010, Djerassi found his way back to Newark, New Jersey, to accept an honorary doctorate from Rutgers University. He was given a tour of his boyhood home, led by Rutgers-Newark Chancellor Steven Diner and Clement Price, distinguished professor of history and African-American studies at Rutgers. As Djerassi talked about his time in Newark, Price remarked that he was quite familiar with the family, as August Meier was a pioneering and celebrated white scholar of African-American history who had also received an honorary degree from Rutgers.

At his commencement address to the Rutgers-Newark College of Arts and Sciences and University College-Newark, Djerassi noted that though he has received numerous honorary degrees, the one from Rutgers was the most meaningful, as it brought him back to the city where his life of promise in America began, and where these experiences “made all the difference to me.”