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Forgotten Genius

The Producer's Story:
Rediscovering a Forgotten Genius
by Stephen Lyons

In 1998, buoyed by the success of the 1996 broadcast of "Einstein Revealed," a two-hour biography that explored Einstein's personal life as well as his science, NOVA set out to launch a bigger project using similar production techniques. We called it Lives in Science: four films that would combine documentary and drama, each focusing on the life and work of a single scientist, played by an actor speaking words drawn from the scientist's own writings.

Looking for an African-American scientist whose story would allow us to explore the issue of race in science, we considered agronomist George Washington Carver, biologist E. E. Just, and blood bank pioneer Charles Drew, among others. But Percy Julian's story stood out. While he'd encountered the same racial obstacles all black scientists of his generation faced, Julian had overcome them more successfully than any other African-American in the first half of the 20th century.

There was just one problem: no book about Percy Julian existed. When producers set out to make film biographies, they almost always piggyback on years of research that historians or biographers have already done. But no science historian had ever studied Julian's career; no biographer had ever told his story. The literature on Julian consisted of a brief biographical memoir by a longtime friend, chemist Bernhard Witkop of the National Institutes of Health; a 1946 Reader's Digest profile; a 1993 magazine article about the Postal Service's decision to name a stamp in Julian's honor, and scattered press clippings and Web sites of uncertain reliability.

Getting under way

This was hardly enough to base a two-hour program on, and it meant that before we could even think about making a film, we'd have to do the kind of original research that normally goes into writing a book. It was a daunting prospect. Neither director Llew Smith nor I had a background in chemistry. We didn't know how long the research would take, how much it would cost, or where the money could come from. The sensible thing would have been to wait for a Julian book to come out. But his story was so compelling that NOVA swallowed hard and plunged in.

Our faith was soon rewarded. In March 1999, the American Chemical Society held a Julian centennial symposium at its national meeting. The symposium had been organized by a retired black chemist named Jim Shoffner, whose own career in chemistry had been inspired by Julian's example, and who had long been working to call attention to the Julian story. As the symposium was wrapping up, Shoffner casually mentioned that NOVA was hoping to produce a Julian biography and that a NOVA representative was in the audience. I stood up to identify myself. Minutes later, a man named Bob Lichter approached and introduced himself. "I'm the executive director of the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation," he said, "and we'd like to help."

It was the first sign that others would see the value of telling Percy Julian's story. By the summer of 2000, a grant from the Dreyfus Foundation—one of the many generous funders that would ultimately support the project—enabled us to get under way.

Witnesses

Two members of the Julian team, Meredith Woods and Patricia Garcia-Rios, focused on building the archival record: combing newspaper and photo archives, libraries, and databases for popular articles, patent applications, scientific papers, photographs, and archival film that might be useful for the program. Meanwhile, Llew Smith and I began a series of oral history interviews. Though Julian had died 25 years earlier, many people who had known him personally were still alive.

From all these interviews emerged a portrait of a new Julian, admirable but also flawed.

In Greencastle, Indiana, seat of Julian's alma mater, DePauw University, we met Jack and Marion Cook, who had worked for years to call attention to the Julian story. The Cooks helped us put together a list of 20 known "Julian associates," and each time we interviewed one of them we asked, "Who else should we talk to?" As the list grew to 30 people, then 40, then 50, two historians from our partners at the Chemical Heritage Foundation joined in the effort. With tape recorders in hand, we fanned out across the country, learning everything we could from Julian's family members, friends, former students, and coworkers.

  • Outside Orlando, Florida, we met 89-year-old Ray Dawson, who described in vivid detail the work he'd done as a DePauw undergraduate 65 years earlier to assist Julian in his famous battle with Oxford's Robert Robinson over the synthesis of physostigmine. To beat the heat of the Greencastle summer, they had often worked late into the night, then driven out to a little shanty at the railroad switching yards north of town for coffee and conversation. It was during one of these late-night talks that Julian told Dawson about his fiancée, Anna Johnson, who was sending him letters from back East demanding to know: Are you going to marry me or not?

  • In Ohio, we discovered former Glidden chemists Helen Printy and Earl Dailey. They'd had a falling out with Julian and long ago left the chemical business to open a bar in Cleveland. But when we found them through an Internet search, all the memories came rushing back. I arrived in town expecting to do a three-hour interview but stayed for three days.

  • In Cincinnati, we found Jim Letton, who'd worked for Julian for more than a decade before returning to school and earning his doctorate in chemistry. He told heartbreaking stories about graduating from college in 1955 and spending two years in a futile search for a job in chemistry—until he learned of a Chicago firm called Julian Laboratories where black chemists were welcome.

  • In Madison, Wisconsin, Julian's son, Percy Jr., described in chilling detail the repeated racial attacks his family had faced after moving into the predominantly white Chicago suburb of Oak Park, and his parents' steely determination to withstand the pressure to move out.

  • North of Chicago, we visited Wayne Cole, who'd studied under Julian at DePauw and then served as his right-hand man at the Glidden Company for more than a decade. At 86, Cole was gaunt, hunch-backed, and unsteady on his feet, but when he opened his mouth, out came sentences of astonishing clarity and precision. Asked about chemical processes he and Julian had used to treat the soybean 60 years earlier, he described them as if they had happened yesterday.

Preserving a legacy

Before long, it dawned on us that we weren't just producing a film. We were preserving the legacy of one of the most significant scientists in American history—capturing the memories of his closest associates while there was still time. In the end, we would interview more than 60 people in 13 states. (We plan to donate the transcripts of our interviews—more than 2,000 pages of them—to a research archive, a priceless resource for future scholars hoping to study Julian's life and career.)

To a great extent, his story is told by the people who knew him best.

From all these interviews emerged a portrait of a new Julian, admirable but also flawed—more complex, more human, and more real than the heroic figure we'd read about in Reader's Digest. Through these interviews we also discovered whole new aspects of Julian's story—new details about his Vienna years, his performance as the star witness in congressional hearings, and his growing commitment to civil rights, among many others. These new chapters made his story even more dramatic than the one that had lured us into the project.

But even as our excitement about the Julian story grew, so did our fear—fear that we would lose critical eyewitnesses before we could begin production. At this point, Jim Shoffner came to our aid for the second time. Newly elected to the American Chemical Society's Board of Directors, Shoffner persuaded ACS to award the Julian project a special grant. The funds allowed us to return to the 15 best storytellers we had found in our initial research and record broadcast-quality video interviews. Just in time, as it turned out: five of those 15 died in the next three years. But they live on in the film, giving the Julian profile an immediacy that is rare in a television biography. To a great extent, his story is told by the people who knew him best.

These people didn't just share their stories. Many also gave us Julian-related artifacts they'd been holding onto for more than a quarter century, as if waiting for us to come along. These included letters, postcards, photographs, even an unfinished autobiography Julian had started 40 years before. Julian's longtime secretary, Joan Bowman, gave us a precious recording of a speech Julian had given at Indiana University in 1965 (see Julian Speaks). And from Peter Walton, a longtime Julian employee and family friend, came the script of one very special speech entitled "From Beans and Wild Yams to the Wonder Drugs." In the speech, delivered to an Oak Park church group in 1959, Julian described his entire scientific career in colorful layman's language. Fascinating, moving and funny, the speech would eventually become the backbone of the film, with Tony Award-winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson delivering excerpts from the speech as Julian's story unfolds.

A collaborative effort

In the end, Percy Julian's television biography got made because NOVA had the faith and courage to forge ahead in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and because we got an extraordinary amount of help along the way. The film is truly a collaborative effort, made possible by the support of organizations that also wished to see Julian's remarkable story brought to a wide audience, and by scores of individuals who contributed to it in ways large and small. We thank them all. "Forgotten Genius" is their film, too.

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Julian in Paris

The making of the television biography of Percy Julian (here seen in Vienna about 1929) became as much preserving a legacy as producing a film.






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Letton

Jim Letton, a former Julian Laboratories chemist, was one of more than 60 people ultimately interviewed for the program. He is shown here in 1952 while a freshman at Kentucky State.






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Julian in lab

Percy Julian in his lab at DePauw University in the 1930s. Among his students are Ray Dawson (to Julian's right) and Wayne Cole (to his left), whom we interviewed over 60 years later.






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Julian in Vienna

A rare photograph of Julian in his earlier days shows the dapper young chemist posing with two friends in Vienna, where he received his doctorate in 1931.






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Handwritten notes

Among the many Julian artifacts turned up during our research was this handwritten page of notes on the progesterone process, scribbled by Percy Julian in the late 1950s.



Stephen Lyons

Stephen Lyons, an independent producer, was Project Director of the Percy Julian Biography Project and wrote and produced "Forgotten Genius" along with director Llewellyn Smith. Previously Lyons was Senior Editor for Program Development at the WGBH Science Unit, which produces NOVA.


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