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Forgotten Genius

Those Who Knew Him Transcript

Ray Dawson

Student & scientific protégé

"To a large extent, I owe my scientific career to Percy Julian," notes botanist Ray Dawson. Dawson was a student of Julian's at DePauw University in the early 1930s and worked at his side as a research assistant before heading to Yale for his Ph.D. Dawson went on to do pioneering work in alkaloid chemistry, studying in particular nicotine in tobacco, and to teach at Princeton, Columbia, and Rutgers.

He put on a grand show. He would come into his lectures in his white lab jacket with a flourish. He had elegant command of the English language. He was oratorical in a way that you would imagine that some great scientist from London or Berlin might be. It was just a show [laughs] but a very good one. And I enjoyed it.

Percy Julian was not treasured at DePauw, by either student body or faculty or also by administration. One superficial reason, but very potent one, was his grand manner—the same manner he used in the lecture room—rather offended the faculty. They thought, "Here is this fellow putting on airs with us, and we don't accept that." His race was very much against him, so that if you add race and manner and superiority—intellectual superiority—you have a guaranteed losing situation.

At DePauw, there were no other blacks on the faculty. And in fact, Percy told me, confidentially, that he had been fired from DePauw because he was black, and the circumstances, I don't know, [laughs] the circumstances were not pretty. According to Percy, he was not supposed to teach; he was supposed just to do research. And Percy gave these lectures, beautifully organized and grandly presented, for two semesters. And then the trustees, of course, found out that he was teaching, and so they told the president of the university that he would have to go. And they told him he'd have to go, at the end of the year. But G. Bromley Oxnam, who was the well known president of DePauw, very dynamic figure, he is supposed to have called Percy in and said, "Look, Percy, you know, normally I would fight for you on this, but," he said, "I want in the worst way to be a bishop in the church. And if I take your side, I'm lost." So, he said, "It's either you or me, and it's going to be me who survives." [laughs] That's the story Percy told me.

I wouldn't say he was bitter. I would say that he was terribly disappointed that a man who was more accomplished, better educated, more cultured than 90 percent, at least, of the other people around him could not be accepted. That was a tremendous burden, and it followed him all his life.

Percy was always a highly sensitive individual. He reacted to everything, and many times overreacted. But yet he had this underlying drive that didn't permit him to stop, to run away, to give up. That was one of the things I admired about him.

I think that the lesson of Percy Julian's life is two-fold. One is that you strive to accomplish something, something worthwhile. You really strive—and I emphasize that word. And the other thing is that you don't take excuses for failure. You don't blame your misfortunes on someone else. You accept the machinations of fate, and you just move on. I think Percy's life has a great deal of meaning for young people today, people of all backgrounds, in that respect. He endured much, and he accomplished much.


Percy Julian Jr.


While Julian's employees describe him as having been notoriously hardworking, Percy Jr. remembers his father as "an eminent philosopher of how to be present with your children." He notes, "My dad had a relationship with us that was ... always in the moment." Here, Percy Jr., a lawyer and civil rights activist, reflects on a man he both admired and adored.

Transcript of Clip 1: His love of tulips
They were endless, the tulips that we had in Oak Park. There were literally hundreds and hundreds of tulips, perhaps thousands even. He planted hundreds every year to renew them. And he had a special way of planting them. He planted them all by hand, and he planted them. I mean, he didn't bring in the gardening service and direct somebody to plant them.

He'd be out there in his tan coat and black beret or blue beret, which I found the other day. My mother actually gave it to me when he died. And he would be planting tulips on a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday afternoon, and that was his recreation. And he'd be out there, and anybody who came along would be enlisted. If you came along, you might be enlisted to cart the wheelbarrow back to get more dirt out of the dirt pile. Or, on many occasions, neighbors were enlisted.

There was a neighbor, a frail old man neighbor who came down the street and would start talking to my dad through the fence post. He was taking a walk. Dad would take a break, and they'd [laughs] be chatting. And my mother said she looked out the breakfast room window and there's this little man who's not as big as my dad, and he's carrying the wheelbarrow, and it's loaded with dirt. And then the two of them are out there planting. And this little man had his cane, and he was taking his walk, [laughs] and he was enlisted to help plant tulips. Needless to say I spent many a Saturday afternoon planting.

The tulip planting was true recreation for him. It was also a time when he could think, a quiet time and a meditative time. And, if there were a companion, it was a time to talk about whatever that companion, whether it was me or whether it was a neighbor, was thinking about or to talk about his lab or about what he was doing, to share that, to share those kinds of stories.

I think it was also important for him to counteract some of the stereotype, arch stereotype impressions that folks in that era had about the way African-American families lived, namely, they were messy. They didn't keep their property. They were slovenly. All those crappy, untrue, idiotic stereotypical views. And I think he wanted to set an example, that that's not true. And I think that he was very conscious of that. But that wasn't all of it, because you could do that in many ways. I mean if that were all of it, he certainly could have just had somebody come in and do the tulips. He didn't do that.

Transcript of Clip 2: Who my father was
My dad was father, scientist, humanitarian, teacher of many things—both scientific and moral—a good person who never reached his potential, who shot for the stars and came close, who took advantage of the country's promise of equality but in some ways was undone by the country's failure to live up to that promise.

I don't think he thought he had accomplished what he could have with the talent he had. I think he wanted to, and I think he was absolutely certain he could have won the Nobel Prize. And he was disappointed that he was unable to do more research than he did.

He once said that he was a good chemist but he dreamed of being an even better chemist, and he felt that the failure of the country to deal with the issue of race blocked not just his opportunities, but all the opportunities of people who were talented of his generation, whether in science or elsewhere. And the good side is that he gave his kids grit, and he gave the future hope.


Helen Printy

Chemist at Glidden & Julian Labs

Chemist Helen Printy worked under Julian for 16 years, first at the Glidden Company and later at his own company. Though she had a falling out with Julian in 1959, time had healed those wounds by the time NOVA found her more than 40 years later. In an interview recorded shortly before her death, Printy has mostly positive memories of the man she fondly refers to as "Doc."

I graduated from Mundelein College in 1943 with a degree in chemistry. 1943 was the peak of World War II, and a few places were opening to hire women. I went to an employment agency that specialized in chemists, and there I met a Gladys Hunter, who said that she had an opening as an analytical chemist. And then she said to me, "The man who is hiring is a Negro." She said, "Do you object to working for a Negro?" And I said, of course I didn't. I was delighted, because I was an idealist. And she said, "Alright, you can go out there."

Doc wore cologne. I think it was from being over in Europe. He just reeked of it. "Of Thee I Sing" was the name of the cologne. And he used to sprinkle it on his handkerchiefs, and I think he must have put it on his clothes. And he'd come in the door (this was at the Glidden Company) and you could tell where he'd been. So the people used to go sniffing around to see if he was anywhere around—you know they were trying to avoid him, because he would pester you at many times. If he was interested in something, he would keep, you know, wanting to know what was new, every half an hour almost. And so you'd want to avoid him.

One of the habits he had, for example, (used to drive everybody—or I think it drove everybody crazy) he would set out a research project, and he would write the paper up of the research project—the introduction and the description of the work and everything, and a conclusion. He did everything except write the experiment. And the experiments wouldn't work half the time. [laughs] But he'd come and scream at you because you ruined his paper, see.

As a human being, I think that he was a source of inspiration to many, many, many people. I think he showed what could be done just by sheer determination. He had none of the helps that people have nowadays. He had none of the freedoms that people have nowadays. He didn't have the federal government behind him. He had everybody, almost, against him, and he accomplished things.


Jim Letton

Chemist at Julian Labs

Like countless other highly educated African-Americans in the 1940s and '50s, Jim Letton tried tirelessly to find employment in his chosen field. In this anecdote, Letton recounts some of his experiences prior to landing a position with Julian Laboratories, where he worked for many years. "Julian Labs," he notes, "was the haven for black chemists."

I looked for two years for a job. I had applications probably in 10 different states at least, and with the federal agencies. I had contacted probably 15 to 20 companies.

There was one company out of Gary, Indiana that sent me a telegram to meet one of their representatives in Louisville, at one of the hotels there, for an interview. I think he had come into the area to interview a number of students, I guess, from the University of Louisville and people in the general area of Jefferson County over there. And I arrived at the hotel after driving about an hour and a half, I think, to get there.

Eight o'clock at night was my appointed time. And I went to the desk and gave my name, and they said, "Oh yeah, he's expecting you." They gave me his number. They called upstairs and told him that I was there, and he said, "Well, send him up."

So I went up to the hotel door and knocked on the door. [laughs] And I didn't really know what happened, but he opened the door and then closed it very quick—when he saw me, I guess. And then he opened it slowly again and said, "Well, I'm pretty busy right now. You-you'll have to go down to the lobby and wait, and I'll call you back in about half an hour." And this was 8 o'clock at night.

And so I went to the lobby. Eight-thirty, no call. And 9 o'clock, no call. So I called him on the house phone, and he said, "Well, I'm still pretty busy, so hold on, and I'll get back to you." I waited probably until 10 o'clock at night, and no response. So I had a feeling for what the issue was, so I decided that I was going to sit there and make him talk to me sometime during the night, or he wasn't going to get any sleep. And so I called every half hour until 1 a.m. And at 1 a.m. he finally told me to come up and talk with him.

I went up there. He was in his pajamas then. He had already gone to bed for the night. And his comment was that "You certainly are persistent." And so he was giving a test to applicants. They had some sort of a, it was a little math and basic chemistry thing, and basic math, nothing complex. And so he gave me the test, and he graded it while I was there, and I made a very good score on it. And he congratulated me for that and said that was one of the better scores he had. And he talked with me about moving to Gary, Indiana, and accepting a job there, and that they would get in touch with me later. And of course I never heard from him again.

So, that was sort of the way things went. One place I went to, the company said they wanted a chemistry major with other majors in biology and physics. And I told them, "I don't think you're going to find that combination." But that was a nice way of turning you away.


Peter Walton

Lifelong family friend & employee

When Peter Walton's mother died in 1948, Percy Julian stepped in to help Walton's father raise three sons. "Dr. Julian was a surrogate father to me," notes Walton. As a teenager, Walton worked as an apprentice in Julian's company, and following a stint in the Navy, he became the plant manager at Julian Laboratories.

Transcript of Clip 1: Christmas showdown
Julian Laboratories was a dot in this ocean of giants. Everybody did not love us in the industry. The industry was fiercely competitive to begin with. I found that out early on. And so having put it all on the line with these major pharmaceutical companies, he had to deliver the goods. Had to.

I can recall one incident, a pending Christmas, if you please. And it was clear to the employees in the plant that there was a (quote) "special relationship" between Dr. Julian and myself, at least a perceived... And so they asked me to do their dirty work, as it turned out—to plead with Dr. Julian for half of Christmas Day off.

Being an unsuspecting individual at that time, I naively went forth looking for Dr. Julian in his office. His office door was closed. I knocked on the door, and I got a shout in return, "Yes?" And I meekly identified myself. He said, "Come in, come in, Peter. Come in." And he was at his desk. Put down his pencil. "Yes? Yes?" And he looked at his watch—a sure sign of impatience on his part, that you were being clocked. "Sit down, sit down. What is it, Peter? I'm busy. I'm busy. I'm trying to get your paycheck together, figuring out here where the next sale's gonna come from."

"Doc, the fellows in the plant have asked me to intercede on their behalf. They don't want all of Christmas off. They just want half a day. Is that possible?"

He jumped up from his desk, startled me. Had his white jacket on. Went to the blackboard and started scribbling some chemical formula that I knew nothing about. And he said, "Oh my God. They want what off? Christmas? I have a shipment to go to Upjohn. Now you go out and tell them, I'm going to be here all of Christmas, all day. Maybe the day after. It would behoove them, each and every one of them, to be here as usual for the beginning of the day shift." He said, "Do you understand?" He said, "Now, I'll make one allowance. Since they have recently gotten the Lord in them, okay, and they're instant Christians, I'll allow them to pray over the reactions."

"Any further questions now?"

I said, "You've made it crystal clear to me, Doc," and I left the room as quickly as I could, and closed the door quietly behind me and went charging back into the plant. And I can't use the exact language that I told them. I said, "Now look, Dr. Julian says ... and I agree with him wholeheartedly, you either got to be here on the 25th of December, or don't come back."

Beside my parents, there is no other individual that I can recall leaving such an impression on me as Dr. Julian. There were times when I wanted to leave, just to get away. There was something magical, though, about the challenge of living up to his expectations.

Transcript of Clip 2: Creating a haven
Dr. Julian had an inner confidence I'm still trying to unravel and decipher, that I have seen rarely in my life. He was always an optimist. He had complete self-confidence. Based on the stories he told me of his life, and what he had endured to accomplish his goals, there was no task that Dr. Julian would not succeed in. There was no such thing as "impossible" in his vocabulary. And so he's always was looking for a new challenge. That I know, because he drove—he drove us, his employees, his associates. He drove us. And that ain't all bad, either.

As Dr. Julian explained to me, one of his missions in life, in creating Julian Laboratories and its affiliates, was to offer decent employment to black chemists throughout the nation.

I'm proud to say on the one hand, but dismayed on the other hand, that our laboratories in Franklin Park employed more black chemists and qualified chemical production workers than any other facility in America. For such a small organization to have such a significant role in true integration is worthwhile, but then it's a sad commentary on the state of affairs in America,

I can recall time and time again where individuals from organizations around the world would come to Franklin Park in the Julian Laboratories. And Dr. Julian would take them on a tour of the research laboratories and the facilities. And to see their eyes look—clearly they were seeing a sight that [laughs] was not normal by their standards, if they had ever seen such a sight before. And he was proud to display his employees to these, in many cases, major figures in the pharmaceutical chemical industry.


Risher Watts

Physician at Julian's death

After working as a chemist at Julian Labs as a young man, Risher Watts went on to become a doctor. When Percy Julian was terminally ill with liver cancer, he called upon Watts to visit him at home and tend to his many secondary ailments.

Percy Julian was a good man. He was learned. He was sympathetic when you needed him to be. He would push you sometimes harder than you thought you should have been pushed. But as a person, as a human being (it's what I admire the most about him) he helped the people who worked for him immensely.

He had the chance to do something for other chemists who happened to be black that came along. And he did a wonderful job. He hired them, and sought them out, and brought them in under his wing, and gave them the experience that they needed in order to succeed. And he enjoyed that immensely.

When he was ill and suffering form the cancer and was becoming terminal, he called me up and asked me if I would come and see him, and I did. And he was having, ah, when you become terminal you have a lot of symptoms, and all of them are painful: nausea, vomiting, and all types of things. And so I treated him for those things. He had an oncologist in the Chicago area, but as far as someone to come see him when he was at home and somewhat bedridden, he didn't have anybody and requested that I do it. And I was very happy to do that.

Dr. Julian's reaction to having cancer, as far as I could determine, was that he never quite accepted it. He still had hope, and he still had plans. He would talk about chemistry, and he would talk about the things that he needed to do, and it was never something that "I'm gonna get my things in order so that I can meet my maker" and what have you.

And I think that his personality that he had all along just continued, and he did not accept the fact, at least not verbally accept the fact, that he was terminal and was gonna die. He just seemed to have other plans, and they seem to have been for this world.

Interviews produced and conducted by Stephen Lyons and Llewellyn Smith for their program "Forgotten Genius." Online feature produced by Susan K. Lewis, with audio editing by David Levin.

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