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Julian the Trailblazer

  • Teacher Resource
  • Posted 08.01.07
  • NOVA

From segregated schools in Alabama to a prestigious position and home in Chicago, this interactive slideshow adapted from NOVA follows the life and career of renowned 20th century chemist Percy Julian, who gained international recognition in chemistry despite the tremendous educational and social obstacles that African Americans faced.

NOVA Julian the Trailblazer
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Source: NOVA: "Forgotten Genius"

This media asset was adapted from NOVA: "Forgotten Genius."


Percy Julian was one of the great scientists of the 20th century. In a career spanning four decades, he made groundbreaking discoveries in chemistry, was awarded dozens of patents, and earned 18 honorary degrees as well as membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences—only the second African American bestowed such an honor.

But it wasn't easy. Julian was born in 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama, during an era of legalized segregation. There were few black schools, and inadequate state funding left them overcrowded, in disrepair, and with far fewer resources than white schools. Few black schools went beyond the eighth grade. Moreover, white resistance to educating African Americans was immense. White supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan terrorized African Americans by burning schools, randomly beating and murdering teachers and students, and intimidating others from attending.

In 1916, Julian moved north to pursue his education. He attended high school and DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, graduating with honors, and went on to earn a master's degree from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Some colleges in the North accepted a handful of black students, but the social climate was unwelcoming and the opportunities limited, particularly for graduate studies. Ultimately, Julian moved to Europe to earn his Ph.D. in 1931.

When he returned to the U.S., Julian became a full professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry at Howard University and the country's foremost black chemist. But Julian got caught up in a personal controversy, and was forced to resign. With nowhere else to go, he returned to DePauw as a researcher, where he took on a high-stakes project that would either secure or destroy his reputation as a chemist. He set out to synthesize a plant alkaloid called physostigmine, used to treat glaucoma. Julian succeeded, and chemists around the world recognized his elegant synthesis as a milestone in chemical history. Even so, it was difficult for Julian to advance. Traditionally white universities would not tolerate having an African American on their faculties.

Julian turned to the chemical industry. Two companies—DuPont and the Institute of Paper Chemistry in Wisconsin—were on the verge of hiring Julian until they found out that he was black. Eventually, Julian was hired to run the chemical research lab for Glidden, a manufacturer of paints and other products, based in Chicago. In 1936, Julian became the first African American to hold such a position.

Julian also became a role model for aspiring black chemists who would work for him. Indeed, the older he got, the more proactive Julian became as an advocate of civil rights. A seminal period for Julian came after he moved his family into the all-white Chicago neighborhood of Oak Park. Although many white residents supported and welcomed him, Julian also received death threats, and an arsonist tried to burn down his house.

Julian joined the fair-housing movement in Oak Park and helped lead a national fundraising campaign for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, giving interviews and speeches about the plight of the black man in America. "Branded, first," Julian railed in one speech, "unfit to spend their money for food or drink in public places along with other Americans; denied the ballot and confined to ghettos that stifled hope and ambition, victims of murder of the mind, heart, and spirit—this is the story of the American Negro."

Until the end of his life, Julian continued to speak out against inequality and to serve as a role model for African Americans.

To learn more about Percy Julian's education, check out Getting an Education.

To learn more about the racial violence that Percy Julian and his family experienced in Oak Park, check out Moving to Oak Park.

To learn more about Percy Julian's work, check out Synthesizing a Steroid, Synthesizing an Alkaloid, and Making Cortisone From Plants.

Questions for Discussion

    • Can you find evidence to support the idea that Julian would have had a different experience pursing a scientific career today?
    • From the information in these slides, how was Julian able to overcome racial barriers that existed in his time?
    • What made Julian an inspiration to other African Americans?
    • Julian overcame racial barriers earlier in his life, but only spoke out against racism later in his life. What information can you find to suggest why?

Resource Produced by:

					WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Developed by:

						WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Credits

Collection Funded by:

						The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation

						The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

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