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Forgotten Genius

Program Overview

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Julian in lab NOVA draws on family archives and interviews with colleagues and relatives to tell the compelling story of 20th-century chemist Percy Lavon Julian, a world-class scientist and civil rights pioneer who helped break new ground in the chemistry of plants.

The program:

  • reviews Julian's early education—which occurred at a time when black children in Alabama were not allowed to study past the eighth grade—and recalls how Julian found a way to earn a 10th-grade education and enter DePauw University in Indiana in 1916.

  • recounts the challenges Julian faced to earn his undergraduate degree and graduate first in his class and later earn his master's degree from Harvard University in 1923.

  • follows Julian's bid for a Ph.D. at the University of Vienna in Austria, where he sought to isolate the active ingredient in Corydalis cava and identify its chemical structure.

  • reports on the young scientist's move back to Howard University in 1931, where university politics and scandal led to his resignation and his return to DePauw to work as a research fellow.

  • documents Julian's efforts to revive his career by taking on one of the world's leading organic chemists in a race to synthesize the alkaloid physostigmine.

  • identifies the continuing racial obstacles the brilliant chemist faced in his pursuit for employment before being hired by the Glidden Company, where he began researching the soybean.

  • profiles Julian's work to synthesize the steroid progesterone from plants after his accidental discovery of a method to isolate steroids from soybean oil.

  • details the path Julian took to try to synthesize Compound S, a steroid that would become a key factor in making cortisone available to millions of sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis.

  • follows Julian as he leaves Glidden to form his own company, Julian Laboratories, which would produce steroid intermediates—compounds just one step short of a finished product.

  • presents the obstacles Julian had to overcome to make his business succeed.

  • reports on the role Julian played in the fight for racial equality.

Taping Rights: Can be used up to one year after the program is taped off the air.

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Forgotten Genius
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