Chemical tour de force (1932-1935)
Not long after his return from Vienna, Julian suddenly faced personal and
professional problems that threatened to end his career just as it was
beginning. In characteristically bold fashion, he resolved to take on a
challenge that could save or destroy him as a chemist: synthesizing
physostigmine. This alkaloid proved effective in treating glaucoma, a disease
responsible for 15 percent of all cases of blindness in the United States. Any
scientist who could fully synthesize the alkaloid in a lab would receive
considerable international attention, but pursuing physostigmine was risky.
Leading organic chemist Sir Robert Robinson had already published nine papers
on the alkaloid, and Julian chanced committing professional suicide by
challenging the expert's findings. In the end, Julian and colleague Josef Pikl
proved Robinson in error and completed the synthesis, a coup that many chemists
still marvel at today.