In the fall of 2015, two seventh graders from Houston contacted NOVA seeking information about Percy Julian, the subject of their National History Day project. Their journey to learn about the life of the inspirational and accomplished African American chemist led them to archival artifacts and even an interview with the director of NOVA’s film, Percy Julian: Forgotten Genius.
The story of Percy Julian remains a powerful reminder of the challenges and bigotry that many scientists of color have had to overcome. Born in 1899 in Montgomery, AL, Julian pursued his education during a brutal Jim Crow era. After completing his undergraduate studies in chemistry at DePauw University and his master’s degree at Harvard University, he was forced to pursue his doctorate in chemistry overseas at the University of Vienna because Harvard would not allow him to complete his teaching assistantship due to his race.
After returning to the United States to take a job as a professor at Howard University, Julian began working in industry where he developed processes to synthesize progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone from plants. His research on plant-derived hormones advanced industrial-scale production as well as the number of treatments available for medical conditions like arthritis and even helped with the production of birth control. When Shotwell Academy seventh graders Tatyana McClain and Han Van set out to choose a historical figure for their National History Day project, they knew that they wanted to choose someone whose work had improved the quality of life for people around the world and whose story was inspiring.
Eight years after NOVA’s Percy Julian: Forgotten Genius’ initial broadcast in 2007, the students contacted NOVA to inform us that they had been inspired to select Julian as the subject of their National History Day competition project after watching the NOVA film on DVD. They were seeking more information beyond the educational resources available online. We were able to provide numerous materials to them from our archives, including an unpublished memoir written by Julian. We also connected them with the film’s director, Llew Smith, who told them about his personal experiences while making the film and meeting members of Julian’s family.
The pair placed first in their school competition, progressed through districts (second place) and regionals (first place), and went all the way to the state competition in Austin earlier this spring. Their success is proof that this NOVA program and the story of Percy Julian continues to provide an invaluable educational experience, reaching and exciting new generations of students.
I got an opportunity to chat with Tatyana and Han as well as their teacher, Monica Blackshire, about their experience working on the Percy Julian project.
Ralph: Why did you choose Percy Julian for your project?
Tatyana: We were just really interested in his journey and how he still prevailed even though he encountered many challenges, such as racial discrimination. His experiments were very significant, and actually we still use them today. We found that very interesting.
Ralph: What’s been an interesting finding from your research about him?
Tatyana: The most interesting finding was when Ms. Melanie Wallace sent us his journal entries that we were able to include in our exhibit. It really gave us personal insight into his thoughts and his actual goals that he tried to pursue while he was living.
Han: It also helped us understand his experimental method when he was performing chemical research on plants.
Ralph: What would you say were some of the challenges that you’ve encountered while working on this project?
Han: Finding pictures. Not many people knew about him and there weren’t that many pictures of him in the early 1900s.
Tatyana: We also talked to the DePauw University archivist, and he said that most of his family had the pictures and his belongings, but since his children and wife are deceased, it’s pretty hard to get in contact with his family.
Ralph: What’s the big takeaway that you want people to have after they view your project?
Tatiana: That Percy Julian explored treatments for conditions like glaucoma and helped identify steroids used in many medications and birth control. He’s not being given enough credit today, so we would like for his research to be more known.
Ms. Blackshire: I think that it would be great if Percy Julian was acknowledged just as much as other well-known African American leaders in history. I mean, his work is so significant, and I’m so surprised that many people don’t know who he is. The documentary that you guys made was really good, and I feel like it should be maybe televised more.
Ralph: Tatyana and Han, what careers are you interested in pursuing?
Tatyana: I was looking at anesthetics, maybe being an anesthesiologist when I get older, or a pediatric nurse. Definitely something in the medical field. And I think Percy Julian has really inspired my interest in medicine.
Han: A radiologist. I like the idea of taking pictures of bones and stuff. While doing the project, I learned that he also helped produce cortisone that helps treat arthritis.
Share the story of Percy Julian with your students. Check out our collection of clips and resources from NOVA’s Percy Julian: Forgotten Genius, on PBS LearningMedia.