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Forgotten Genius

Library Resource Kit Who Was Percy Julian?
Expanded Version

Dr. Percy Lavon Julian was a trailblazing chemist whose discoveries improved and saved countless lives. The grandson of slaves, Julian grew up at a time when African Americans faced extraordinary obstacles. Yet Julian refused to let racism prevent him from becoming one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century, as well as a leader in business and civil rights.

Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on April 11, 1899. Both of his parents were educated, which was rare for Black families in the South at that time. Although his family greatly valued education, Julian had to attend a segregated elementary school. And, because Montgomery had no public high school for African Americans, he was forced to attend a teacher training school for African Americans instead.

In 1916, having barely a tenth-grade education, Julian entered DePauw University, a largely white liberal arts school in Indiana. "On my first day in college," he recalled, "I remember walking in and a white fellow stuck out his hand and said, 'How are you? Welcome!' I had never shaken hands with a white boy before and did not know whether I should or not." Despite having to take remedial courses to catch up to his white peers and experiencing considerable racial discrimination, Julian not only earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and first in his class.

After teaching chemistry at Fisk University for a couple of years, Julian won a fellowship to continue his graduate work. In 1923, he became the first African American to earn a master's degree in chemistry from Harvard University. However, Harvard still refused him admission to its doctoral program—Julian had been denied the teaching assistantship needed for admission. Julian eventually became the head of the chemistry department at Howard University, an African American institution. Determined to continue his education, he enrolled in the University of Vienna, and in 1931 he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry, the fourth African American to achieve this distinction. It was in Vienna that he experienced a new sense of freedom—accessing layers of society unavailable in the United States. It was here that Julian also began his lifelong inquiry into the chemistry of plants.

Returning to DePauw University as a research fellow, Julian eventually became an expert in synthesis, the process of turning one substance into another through a series of planned chemical reactions. Synthesis was the highest calling for a chemist in the 1930s. In 1935, Julian and a colleague synthesized physostigmine, a plant compound from Calabar beans, and won a high-stakes, high-profile scientific victory over the "dean" of chemistry, Sir Robert Robinson. Their achievement led to physostigmine being widely used as a treatment for glaucoma. In fact, in 1999, the American Chemical Society recognized their work as a National Historic Chemical Landmark—one of the top 25 accomplishments in American chemical history. In addition, numerous undergraduates trained by Julian were published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society—an unheard of occurrence at the time.

Still, despite his impressive achievements, Julian's opportunities were sharply restricted, and DePauw refused to appoint him to a permanent faculty position. American colleges and universities at the time simply were not prepared to have a Black person teaching white students. Thus, Julian moved from the world of academia to the world of business, where although he faced similar challenges, he landed a job as Director of Research at the Glidden Company in 1936.

Among other important achievements, Julian's highly successful research at Glidden helped trigger an explosive growth industry for soybeans. For 18 years, his work uncovering new uses for the chemicals found in soybeans was not only enormously profitable for Glidden, it helped relieve human suffering across the globe. For example, a protein he extracted from soybeans was used to produce a fire-retardant foam in fire extinguishers. Called Aer-o-foam, it saved thousands of soldiers' lives during World War II.

In addition, Julian discovered a process for making artificial hormones. The discovery was actually serendipitous: after water leaked into a giant tank of soybean oil, Julian recognized crystals of stigmasterol, a steroid, at the bottom of the tank. He eventually developed a process for converting stigmasterol into progesterone and making it available on a commercial scale. Today progesterone is used to decrease the risk for uterine cancer and in hormone replacement therapy. Julian also found a way to create synthetic cortisone, making this once prohibitively expensive "wonder drug" affordable to millions of arthritis sufferers.

In recognition of his contributions to society, Julian was named Chicagoan of the Year in 1950. But when he and his wife Anna and their two children moved to Oak Park, Illinois, a predominantly white, affluent suburb of Chicago, they encountered violent resistance. Despite attempts to intimidate them—their house was set on fire and firebombed—the Julians stood their ground and remained in Oak Park.

In 1953, Julian established Julian Laboratories to produce synthetic steroids, which pharmaceutical companies used to make drugs. He proved to be as talented an entrepreneur as he was a chemist. Julian's company flourished, making him a millionaire when he sold it in 1961. By the 1970s, Julian had more than 100 patents to his name and was widely recognized as an innovator who had helped make a range of medicines more affordable. He also was a prominent civic and civil rights leader, raising funds and speaking publicly for racial justice and full equality for all Americans. Perhaps his greatest contribution was breaking the color barrier in American industrial science: Julian's labs were the training grounds for dozens of promising young African American chemists. For his contributions to humanity, Julian received 18 honorary degrees and more than a dozen civic and scientific awards; he was the second African American elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the first chemist.

Percy Julian died of liver cancer in 1975, at the age of 76. Throughout the world, millions of people continue to benefit from his groundbreaking discoveries.

Drawing of Julian in lab

Percy Julian's Life

1899—Born in Montgomery, Alabama on April 11.

1920—Graduates first in his class from DePauw University with a bachelor's degree in chemistry.

1923—Earns master's degree in chemistry from Harvard University.

1928—Heads chemistry department at Howard University.

1931—Awarded Ph.D. from the University of Vienna, where he begins his work with plant compounds.

1932—Returns to teach at DePauw University.

1935—Succeeds in producing synthetic physostigmine, which leads to a glaucoma drug. Marries Anna Johnson, the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in sociology in the U.S.

1936—Begins working at the Glidden Company. 1939 Succeeds in producing progesterone on an industrial scale.

1940—Son Percy Jr. is born.

1942—Extracts a soybean protein that leads to the development of a fire-retardant foam that saves thousands of soldiers' lives in World War II.

1944—Daughter Faith is born.

1947—Receives the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

1949—Synthesizes Compound S, a major ingredient in low-cost cortisone.

1950—Named Chicagoan of the Year.

1951—Moves to Oak Park, Illinois, where his family's home is firebombed.

1953—Founds Julian Laboratories.

1961—Sells the company for $2.3 million.

1960s and 1970s—Works with civil rights groups to fight discrimination.

1973—Elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

1975—Dies on April 19.

1993—U.S. Postal Service issues stamp in his honor.

1999—Julian's work recognized as a National Landmark by the American Chemical Society.



Tune in
Percy Julian overcame racial discrimination to emerge as one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century. Find out more in NOVA's Forgotten Genius. The two-hour program premieres on PBS February 6, 2007. (Check local listings.) Visit the companion Web site at www.pbs.org/nova/julian .

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