NARRATOR: 1939: A chemist at a midwestern paint company makes a startling discovery, one that could improve the health of millions of people. The company wants him to stick to making paint, but this man has always gone his own way. He was the grandson of Alabama slaves, yet he went on to become one of America's great scientists.
HELEN PRINTY (Julian Laboratories Chemist): He had to fight to overcome the odds of being a black man in America.
JOHN KENLY SMITH (Historian): The chemical world was a club, and outsiders were not really all that welcome.
PETER WALTON (Julian Laboratories Employee): We lived, for the most part, in a highly stressed, very competitive environment.
NARRATOR: Outside the laboratory, he faced challenges of a different kind.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): Once the violence began, Anna and I felt we had no choice but to stay.
PERCY JULIAN, JR.: My dad was angry when he came home, and clearly ready to fight.
PERCY JULIAN(Dramatization): For more than a century we have watched the denial of elemental liberty to millions of black people in our southland.
NARRATOR: He found freedom in the laboratory. His science helped unlock the secret chemistry of plants, a discovery that would help relieve one of the most crippling human diseases and plunge him into one of the fiercest battles in the history of science.
GREGORY PETSKO (Chemist): This is one of the towering figures of chemistry in 20th century and one of the great African American scientists of all time.
NARRATOR: A brilliant chemist, a volatile personality, a man whose devotion to science would not be denied.
WILLIE PEARSON (Sociologist): This man was "Exhibit A" of determination and never giving up.
V/O (Dramatization of Senate Hearings): Please state your full name for the record.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): My name is Percy Julian.
NARRATOR: Every spring, in Oak Park, Illinois, people from all over the village would go out of their way to see the explosion of color at the home on the corner of East and Chicago Avenues.
PERCY JULIAN, JR.: The tulips just went on forever. My dad, he'd be out there in his black beret, and my sense was that he had this love affair with growing things.
NARRATOR: What many passersby didn't realize was that the tulip grower was also one of America's great scientists.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): Well, ladies and gentleman, essentially, I'm going to talk to you about three plants, three marvelous plants, three marvelous plants that make the words of the Psalmist come true and ring true again, "Consider the lilies of the field: they toil not, neither do they spin, and yet Solomon in all his glory was never arrayed like one of these."
NARRATOR: It was not simply the beauty of plants that captivated Percy Julian, but their ability to produce an endless variety of powerful chemicals. In the 1930s, Julian set out to tap what he called the "natural laboratories" of plants, to make a new class of drugs that would help millions of people.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): Spoiled? What do you mean spoiled?
NARRATOR: Julian fought through extraordinary obstacles to make a place for himself in a profession and a country divided by race.
JAMES ANDERSON (Historian): The message from white society is very clear: it is not your achievement or your merit or your accomplishments that matter, it's the color of your skin, and because of that you're rejected.
GREGORY PETSKO: Yet over and over again, he doesn't let this stop him. He presses on, sure that his vision of where he wants to go and how he wants to get there is right.
JAMES SHOFFNER (Chemist): After Percy Julian, nobody could say anymore that blacks couldn't do science, because he was at the very top of his profession.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): The story I will tell you tonight is a story of wonder and amazement, almost a story of miracles. It is a story of laughter and tears. It is a story of human beings, therefore, a story of meanness, of stupidity, of kindness and nobility.
One beautiful morning, when I was 12 years old, I went berry-picking on my grandfather's farm in Alabama. I shall never forget how beautiful life seemed to me that morning, under the spell of an Alabama forest. But in the midst of that beauty, I came across a Negro body hanging from a tree. He had been lynched a few hours earlier. He didn't look like a criminal; he just looked like a scared boy.
On the way back, I encountered and killed a rattlesnake. For years afterward, every time I saw a white man, I involuntarily saw the contours of a rattlesnake head on his face. Many years later, a reporter asked me what were my greatest nightmares from my childhood in the South. I told him, "White folks and rattlesnakes."
NARRATOR: Percy Lavon Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1899, at a time when southerners lived under a system of forced segregation called Jim Crow.
JAMES ANDERSON: I think the greatest consequence of Jim Crow is fear. You knew if you said the wrong thing or went in the wrong door or drank out of the wrong water fountain...that any of those things could lead to your death.
NARRATOR: To shelter his children from this oppressive atmosphere, Julian's father turned to the world of ideas.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): Every penny my father could scrape together went into building a wonderful library for his children, for the public library was closed to us. My father created, in my imagination, brave new worlds to conquer.
NARRATOR: As a young man, James Julian had been a schoolteacher. His wife Elizabeth was a teacher, too. They believed education offered the path to a better life for black people.
Denied his own chance to go to college, James made it his mission to send his children instead, but it would not be easy. In Montgomery, and across most of the South, public schools for black children simply stopped after the eighth grade.
JAMES ANDERSON: The message from white society, to black students, was that you should have just enough education to be good field hands and good laborers, cooks and maids and so forth.
NARRATOR: With no high school to attend, Percy Julian completed two years at the local teacher training school for Negroes. In 1916, with barely a 10th grade education, Percy Julian became the first member of his family to live out his father's dream.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): During the hectic week of preparations, my father had taken me aside for a long talk. "This is the greatest moment of your life," he told me. "But it is also a great responsibility, for you are now beginning to create a family, a family of educated people."
There they were, three generations of hope and prayer, waving to a fourth generation that was going off to college! And why? Because they had the simple faith that the last great hope of the Earth is education for all the people.
NARRATOR: Julian's destination was DePauw University, a small liberal arts college in Greencastle, Indiana. DePauw had accepted a few black students since the Civil War, but expected them to know their place.
JAMES ANDERSON: A black student entering a white university, if they didn't know before they arrived, they found out, pretty quickly, that they were not welcome in the university or in the community.
NARRATOR: Instead of being assigned to a dorm like his white classmates, Julian was shown to an off-campus room with a slop jar for a toilet.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): I soon got up enough courage to ask Mrs. Townsend what time we would have dinner, but she tersely informed me that she was not expected to give me my meals.
NARRATOR: Julian wandered the streets of Greencastle for a day and a half before finding a diner that would serve a Negro.
He would continue to take his meals off-campus until he learned of an opening at the Sigma Chi fraternity. In exchange for waiting on his housemates and firing their furnace, Julian could have a room in the basement. He soon felt at ease in the fraternity; the classroom was a different matter.
JAMES ANDERSON: You sit in a classroom with kids who have read things that you never heard of, they've taken math courses that you haven't taken, and so one of the academic challenges is trying to hold on until you can catch up.
NARRATOR: For two years Julian would take remedial classes at a local high school in addition to his normal course load.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): I remember writing to my father, "I know you and Mother have always known what was best for me, but I think you made a mistake by sending me to compete with these white students. They are so brilliant that I am always hopelessly behind."
NARRATOR: But by his sophomore year, Julian was gaining fast on his white classmates, thanks, in part, to the encouragement of chemistry professor William Blanchard. Blanchard had what one student called "a contagious enthusiasm for discovering the unknown." Under his tutelage, Julian began to dream of a career as a research chemist.
Only one African American had ever earned a doctorate in chemistry. His name was St. Elmo Brady. Julian decided that if Brady could do it, so could he. After four years, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and first in his class.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): At commencement time, my great-grandmother bared her shoulders, and she showed me, for the first time, the deep scars that had remained from a beating she had received when, one day, during the waning days of the Civil War, she went through the Negro quarters and cried out, "Get yourselves ready, children. The Yankees are coming. The Lord has heard our prayers!"
And then, proudly, she took my Phi Beta Kappa key in her hand and said, "This is worth all the scars."
NARRATOR: Encouraged by Percy's success, his father moved the whole family north to Greencastle to send the rest of the children to DePauw. Eventually, Julian's two brothers would become doctors, and his three sisters would earn master's degrees.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): I shall never forget an anxious week of waiting, in 1920, to see if I would get into graduate school. I stood by as, day by day, my fellow students in chemistry said, "I am going to Illinois," "I'm going to Ohio State," or "I'm going to Michigan." "Where are you going?" they asked. And they answered for me: "You must be waiting for the Harvard plum!"
I could stand the suspense no longer. I went to Professor Blanchard. And there he showed me numerous letters from men who had really meant "god" to me, great American chemists of their day. "Discourage your bright colored lad," they wrote. "We couldn't get him a job when he's done, and it'll only mean frustration. Why don't you find him a teaching job in a Negro college in the South? He doesn't need a Ph.D. for that."
JAMES ANDERSON: What happened to Julian was something that would have been common throughout the land. To have a good college education was way beyond anything that one would expect for an African American. And so there's the sense that he'd had enough. "Stop here. Be content with this. Go back and teach your people."
NARRATOR: In 1920, Julian reluctantly returned to the south to teach, but he clung to the dream of earning his Ph.D. At 21, he was embarking on a quest that would last more than 10 years.
His first stop was Fisk University in Nashville, one of the best Negro colleges in the country. His idol, St. Elmo Brady, had studied at Fisk. But Julian chafed at the limitations of the black college system: overcrowded classrooms, inadequate libraries and poorly equipped laboratories.
After two years, he was on the move again. Julian had won a scholarship to study chemistry at one of America's most famous universities.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): No Negro has yet obtained his master's degree in chemistry at Harvard, and so I'm up against a hard situation again.
JAMES ANDERSON: When Julian arrived at Harvard, in 1922, the racial climate was probably worse than it had been at any point in the 20th century.
NARRATOR: President Abbott Lawrence Lowell had set the tone by banning black students from the dorms in Harvard Yard.
Julian sailed through his first year and earned his master's degree in the spring of 1923.
He continued his studies for three more years but left Harvard without his doctorate. Years later, he would bitterly tell friends he had been denied the teaching assistantship he needed to stay in school.
JAMES ANDERSON: If you were going to be a teaching assistant and teach white students, that was a no-no. That's just hardly acceptable at that time and that place. If you were denied that, you were also denied the opportunity to finance your education.
NARRATOR: Julian spent an unhappy year teaching at a small black college near Charleston, West Virginia. Then his fortunes turned. He was invited to join the faculty at the nation's most distinguished black university: Howard University, in Washington, D.C.
He was replacing St. Elmo Brady, who was returning to Fisk. Julian went straight to work, designing a new chemistry building and honing a distinctive lecture style.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): I should warn you that scientists are traditionally poor speakers, because they have a hard time letting go of their gobbledy-gook. "Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home," becomes impossible when you must call the ladybird "coccinella bipunctata."
NARRATOR: Despite his growing stature at Howard, Julian was still determined to earn his Ph.D. In 1929, he finally got his chance. He won a fellowship that allowed him to take a leave from Howard to study at the University of Vienna, in Austria. He was about to begin a lifelong inquiry into the chemistry of plants.
GREGORY PETSKO: For thousands of years, long before there was such a thing as a science of chemistry, people were fascinated by plants, because they knew that plants contained substances that could affect people. Coffee will keep you awake. Tobacco contains something that will calm your nerves. Foxglove contains an extract that'll affect your heart. And the whole goal of chemistry in the early part of the 20th century was to understand what these natural products were, to characterize their chemical structures, and figure out how to make them. This was called "natural products chemistry." It was the main branch of chemistry. And in 1929, Vienna, in Austria, was the seat of natural products chemistry. And that's why Percy Julian went there.
NARRATOR: Julian arrived at Vienna's Chemische Institut with huge crates of ground glassware, items the Viennese students had heard about but never seen.
BERNHARD WITKOP (National Academy of Sciences Member): The unpacking became a big ceremony surrounded by fellow students, who "oohed" and "aahed" about the wonders that came out of these crates.
NARRATOR: Among the onlookers was Josef Pikl, a chemist who would become one of Julian's closest friends and collaborators. They had come to Vienna to study under the renowned scientist Ernst Späth. Späth was a giant in the field of natural products chemistry. He had a particular interest in a family of compounds called alkaloids.
GREGORY PETSKO: Of all the natural products, the ones that fascinated people the most were the alkaloids, because they seemed the most powerful. A thimbleful of some alkaloids would bring down an elephant.
NARRATOR: It's believed that many alkaloids evolved to protect plants from organisms that might eat or harm them, but these same compounds can have unexpected effects on people.
GREGORY PETSKO: We now know, for example, that it's an alkaloid, caffeine, that's responsible for the stimulant effect of coffee beans. We also know that it's an alkaloid called nicotine that's the calming influence in tobacco plants. Other alkaloids are things like morphine, strychnine, cocaine. A whole host of things that we now know are drugs turn out to be plant alkaloids.
NARRATOR: By 1929, it was known that an alkaloid from the root of a common Austrian shrub called Corydalis cava was effective in treating pain and heart palpitations. Späth asked Julian to find out why.
DAGMAR RINGE (Chemist): And so the question was which compound, which precise compound in this tuber, is responsible for the biological effect that one is seeing?
NARRATOR: Isolate the active ingredient in Corydalis cava, and then identify its chemical structure: this was the challenge Julian would have to meet to earn his Ph.D.
Free, at last, of teaching and administrative duties, he threw himself into his research as never before.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): For the first time in my life, I represent a creating, alive and wide-awake chemist. I recognize that publications and research will be, for me, as natural a thing as going to bed and eating a meal. Truly, I was the luckiest guy in all the world to land here.
NARRATOR: Just outside the laboratory was a vibrant world that Julian was eager to explore. A fellow student, Edwin Mosettig, took the American under his wing. Soon Julian was joining the Mosettig family for ski trips, swims in the Danube and the opera.
BERNHARD WITKOP: The mother of Edwin Mosettig was a famous musician, and the Mosettig house was a center for social activity. So, in that way, Percy got access to layers of the society that were inaccessible in America. Black persons in Europe were very rare, and Percy, for the first time in his life, fully unfolded, because he was admired there.
NARRATOR: For Julian, the sense of freedom was exhilarating. In letter after letter, he described his busy social life to colleagues back at Howard.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): And now a little news: I have the prettiest girl in Vienna. You have never gazed on such beauty. Monday night, we were in the opera and heard Beethoven's Fidelio.
Nature makes its demands, so I've made a date with my little German sweetheart. They didn't lie when they talked of beautiful Viennese women. Afterwards, we went to the sweetest wine cellar you ever saw and drank 'til 3 a.m.
NARRATOR: But at 7:55 each morning, Julian was back in the laboratory, working under the watchful eye of a man so severe he would immediately fail a student he considered lazy or untalented.
The pressure was mounting on Julian to isolate the elusive alkaloids on which his dissertation depended.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): The last two months, I have passed through a hellish siege of work. Reaction upon reaction, and yet I stand at the door and knock, as it were. I don't know a damned thing.
NARRATOR: The alkaloids that puzzled Julian, like most of the molecules of life, are made, primarily, of carbon.
GREGORY ROBINSON (Chemist): Carbon is really the Super Glue of the chemical world, in the sense that carbon can bond to itself in almost an infinite number of ways.
DAGMAR RINGE: In this model, for instance, I can make a chain of carbons that continues, practically, infinitely. However, it can also come together into a ring structure, in this case a six-carbon ring structure.
NARRATOR: The carbon ring is one of nature's fundamental building blocks, found in an endless variety of compounds. Members of the alkaloid family all have one or more nitrogen atoms. But otherwise their structures vary widely, which presented Julian with a formidable challenge.
NED HEINDEL (Chemist): He was working in some very difficult chemistry. When you don't know anything about what the structure is of the material you're isolating, you have to tear your molecule apart, atom by atom, and try to deduce the structure.
DAGMAR RINGE: It's like finding a needle in a haystack. It requires stubbornness. It requires focus. It requires repeating, over and over, the same kinds of processes, until the answers come out.
NARRATOR: Slowly the answers did come. In his second year, Julian finally identified the active alkaloid in Corydalis cava, his first chemical triumph. This work with Späth would be the foundation of his future career.
BERNHARD WITKOP: When Ernst Späth was asked about his student, Percy Julian, he characterized him and said, "Ein ausserordentlicher Student wie ich in meiner Laufbahn noch nie gehabt habe," "an extraordinary student, the likes of which I have never had before in my career as a teacher."
NARRATOR: Julian returned to America, in the fall of 1931, with the doctorate he had pursued for more than a decade. The years in Vienna had dramatically increased his self-confidence. But they had also sown the seeds of a personal catastrophe that awaited him at Howard.
Back in Washington, Julian set out to turn Howard into a center for true chemical research, something his predecessor had been unable to do. Burdened with teaching responsibilities, St. Elmo Brady had not published a single research paper in the 15 years since earning his Ph.D. Julian was determined this would not happen to him.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): I am going to give every damned ounce of my energy towards plans to flood the chemical market with as much research as the day's hours and my strength will allow.
NARRATOR: He brought Josef Pikl over from Vienna, and the two went straight to work on a series of papers.
When their first was accepted for publication, Julian proudly noted it was the first with a black chemist as senior author. Percy Julian was now America's preeminent black chemist and, at Howard, one of President Mordecai Johnson's rising stars.
But Johnson had made many enemies in his five years at Howard. Soon Julian would be caught up in university politics, with disastrous results. The trouble began when Julian, at the president's request, goaded a white chemist named Jacob Shohan into resigning. Shohan retaliated by releasing to the local black press the letters Julian had written to him from Vienna.
Julian's accounts of his romances, his criticism of faculty members, suddenly it was all public, ammunition to be used against Julian and Johnson by the president's enemies.
Just as Julian's letters began to appear in the press, there was another bombshell. His laboratory assistant, Robert Thompson, charged he had found his wife and Julian together. Lawsuits flew between Julian and Thompson. When Thompson was fired for going public with his charges, he released the letters that Julian had written to him from Vienna.
Through the summer of 1932, the Baltimore Afro-American published letter after letter from the man the newspaper dubbed "Howard's Prize Letter-Writer."
Finally, under pressure from Johnson and the Board of Trustees, Julian resigned. It was the middle of the Great Depression. Julian was a chemist without a laboratory, a black man without a job. Only a year after his triumphant return from Vienna, the career he'd worked so hard to build was in ruins.
When all seemed lost, Julian's mentor, William Blanchard, threw him a lifeline, bringing him back to DePauw as a research fellow to supervise lab sections. It was a big step down from full professor and department chairman, but he had a lab again, and his research partner, Josef Pikl, would join him at DePauw.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): In much of my life I've had to pick up the broken fragments of chance and turn them into opportunity.
NARRATOR: Over the next three years, 11 of the student projects Julian supervised would lead to papers in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
NED HEINDEL: Eleven undergraduate papers published in JACS, out of a student body of that size, was not only unusual for the 1930s, it would be unusual now. Julian took the talent in those students and put that institution on the map for undergraduate research.
NARRATOR: DePauw's newest instructor left a powerful impression on undergraduate Ray Dawson.
RAY DAWSON (DePauw Alumnus): He put on a grand show. He would come into his lectures, in his white lab jacket, with a flourish. He was oratorical in a way some great scientist from London or Berlin might be. It was just a show, but a very good one.
NARRATOR: Julian had finally found fulfillment, a place where he could teach and research. But when the local American Legion assailed the school for hiring a Negro who had been dismissed from Howard University, Julian was forced to stop teaching. He could stay on as long as his research grant lasted, but his days at DePauw were numbered. Everything he'd work for was about to collapse again.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): I decided I had to do things that would make people take more notice of me.
NARRATOR: What he did was take on a high-stakes research project, one that would either make him or break him.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): It all began with a simple little bean, the Calabar bean. It was a beautiful, purple bean when I first got it. But it is not only beautiful in its appearance, but also in the laboratory it has within it.
NARRATOR: Chemists had been fascinated by the Calabar bean ever since British missionaries brought it back from Africa in the mid-1800s. From the bean, they had isolated an alkaloid called physostigmine—used to treat glaucoma—but no one had been able to synthesize the complex molecule.
GREGORY PETSKO: Synthesis is the process of making a natural product, or some other substance, artificially, in the lab, one step at a time, from extremely simple building blocks.
NARRATOR: Synthesis was the highest calling for a chemist in the 1930s. A successful synthesis could bring great medical benefits, by making a scarce natural product more widely available. Just as important, it proved beyond a doubt that the chemist understood how the molecule was put together.
NED HEINDEL: There were very few alkaloids that had been made from scratch in Julian's time. The synthesis of physostigmine would bring recognition to whoever achieved it. And that's what Percy Julian set out to do.
NARRATOR: But Julian was not alone. At Oxford University, another chemist was at work on his own synthesis. His name was Robert Robinson.
NED HEINDEL: Sir Robert Robinson was sort of the dean of organic chemists in England. He was a much-respected creator of molecules, a trainer of many Ph.D. students. He was the premier organic chemist of his time.
NARRATOR: Moving step-by-step toward a final synthesis, Robinson had already published nine papers on physostigmine in Britain's leading chemical journal.
NED HEINDEL: It's a little bit of intimidation. The world is supposed to know, "I've got this domain; you stay out of it."
NARRATOR: But to Julian, Robinson's approach seemed clumsy. Convinced there was a simpler way, he set out to beat the Englishman to the synthesis. A high-profile scientific victory would be just the thing to get his career back on track, but it wouldn't be easy. Physostigmine was unlike any molecule that had been synthesized before.
NED HEINDEL: It bristled with spots around the molecule where methyl groups were hanging, that's a carbon with three hydrogens. There are actually four of these, and getting them in the right place is essential to making nature's molecule. It was a formidable chemical challenge for anybody to tackle in the early 1930s.
NARRATOR: Julian tackled it the way all chemists do: one step at a time.
GREGORY PETSKO: When you synthesize a molecule, you start with very small substances, substances you can buy or that you know how to make already. You then start assembling those into fragments of the thing that you're hoping to make in the end; they're called "intermediates." And what you're doing is you're following a particular path. This path takes you from the simple starting substances all the way to the final product, the natural product.
NARRATOR: To build his molecule, Julian drew on a battery of techniques for manipulating atoms.
NED HEINDEL: One can heat something to a very high temperature; that usually gets the atoms vibrating and makes new bonds possible. You can oxidize something—you can add oxygen to it. You can take oxygen out of a molecule; that's a reduction. We can expose it to pressure. Sometimes, we can expose it to light, to cajole the atoms to do what we want.
NARRATOR: At each step, Julian had to verify that he'd actually made the compounds he intended to. For this, he relied on a device called a combustion train.
NED HEINDEL: This technique takes an organic molecule which contains carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and burns it.
NARRATOR: By weighing the resulting gases, Julian could tell what atoms were present and in what ratio.
GREGORY PETSKO: How much carbon does it have? How much hydrogen does it have? How much nitrogen does it have? If your compound has the right ratio, you're a long way towards being sure you've made what you thought you made.
NED HEINDEL: And then you repeat this process of purification and of analysis for each intermediate, until you finally get to the natural product.
NARRATOR: Julian was under tremendous pressure to complete the research, pressure compounded by events in his personal life. He was engaged. His fiancée was the woman who'd been at the center of the Howard scandal, the former wife of his laboratory assistant, Robert Thompson.
Born Anna Roselle Johnson, she was a member of a prominent African American family from Baltimore. She had graduated Phi Beta Kappa and was now working toward a Ph.D. in sociology.
RAY DAWSON: They'd already set, I believe, two wedding dates, which he had canceled, and she told him that this was the last time. Unless he kept the new latest date, she would break off their engagement. And he was quite upset by this, but he had no choice but to proceed, because we were only a few weeks away from the end.
NARRATOR: In 1934, Julian and Pikl sent off their first paper on physostigmine, outlining a new approach to the synthesis. Julian attacked Robinson in the beginning lines of the paper.
NED HEINDEL: To have a young upstart taking on the pope of organic chemistry in England, naming him, and coupling the words "failure" and "embarrassing" and "low yield" is almost unbelievably aggressive.
GREGORY ROBINSON: In many regards, that was a pivotal point in Julian's career. If he were wrong, he could effectively, almost, write off any research career at that point.
NARRATOR: Working around the clock, Julian and Pikl synthesized a compound that was one step removed from physostigmine. Since that last step was already known, this would count as a complete synthesis. But before they could publish, Robinson struck again with his own synthesis of the same compound. The race was over.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): The shock was almost unbearable. We were not the first, just the "me toos." Why did he, of so much fame, who didn't at all need the glory, have to snatch the prize from us?
Suddenly, my eye caught something. "Look, Josef, he's made a big blunder." Our crystals melted at about 39° Celsius, body temperature. Indeed, we were able to melt them by closing them in our armpits. His compound melted not at body temperature, but almost 50 degrees higher. "He hasn't got it!" I cried.
NED HEINDEL: The melting point of a molecule is a fingerprint. If Julian's melting point is correct then Robinson's can't be, and these can't be the same substance. And Julian quickly grasps on that and says, "You've got the wrong compound."
NARRATOR: Julian hurriedly wrote an addendum to their next paper.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): "We believe that the English authors are in error." Josef was a very unhappy man. "If we are wrong, we are irretrievably ruined," he said.
It hit like a bombshell. Telegrams came in from all over the world. My old professor, Kohler of Harvard, he wrote: "I pray that you are right. If not, the future may be dark for you."
NED HEINDEL: Part of what he's just done here is a go-for-broke plan. He's working as an underpaid assistant in a liberal arts college. He desperately needs a break.
NARRATOR: Now the pressure was on Julian and Pikl to prove they were right.
RAY DAWSON: Percy was a bundle of nerves, but, yet, he had this underlying drive that didn't permit him to stop, to run away, to give up.
NARRATOR: To confirm his synthesis, Julian needed to take one final melting point.
DAGMAR RINGE: When chemists took a melting point, they would put some crystals into a capillary tube, strap that capillary tube to a thermometer, and then place the complete assembly into an oil bath. They're looking to determine the exact moment when the crystals begin to melt.
NARRATOR: To claim victory over Robinson, Julian had to show that another set of crystals from his synthesis melted at the same temperature as their natural counterpart, 135 degrees.
NED HEINDEL: This has got to be the ultimate high. "I've taken on the master, and I've beaten him."
NARRATOR: The physostigmine papers were immediately recognized as a milestone in American chemical history, an early example of what chemists call "total synthesis," the complete assembly of a complex molecule from basic chemical building blocks.
NED HEINDEL: Julian's pathway to physostigmine is so simple that it can be summarized in essentially two publications. Chemists look at them and marvel at..."How did he do that in so elegant of a sequence?"
JAMES SHOFFNER: To call a process "elegant" means that the synthesis is achieved in the minimal amount of steps necessary in order to bring about a product. And so that's really to give it the highest accolade that you can give, that it is elegant.
NARRATOR: In 1935, Percy finally married Anna in a private ceremony on Christmas Eve. As his bride went back east to finish her doctorate, Julian looked forward to new career opportunities his triumph would bring.
On the strength of the physostigmine work, William Blanchard had recommended his protégé for a permanent faculty position at DePauw.
DONALD "JACK" COOK (Former DePauw Chemistry Chairman): If DePauw had recognized Percy's capabilities and put him on the staff at that time, it would have been a historical event. It didn't happen.
NARRATOR: Julian applied to other universities, with the same result.
JAMES ANDERSON: Most institutions would not even tolerate, for a second, having an African American in the role of a teacher or a faculty.
WILLIE PEARSON: This was during a time of rampant scientific racism. There were a number of scholars at Harvard and other institutions that were doing scientific studies and reporting that African Americans did not have the capacity to do science, because they were actually an inferior race.
NARRATOR: In early 1936, Julian's research grant ran out. Now, with no hope of an academic career, he turned his attention to industry. America's leading chemical corporation, DuPont, had invited Julian and Pikl for an interview. DuPont executives offered Pikl a job. To Julian, he later recalled, they offered an apology: "We didn't know you were a Negro."
JOHN KENLY SMITH: The world of chemical research and development in industry, in this period, was overwhelmingly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant men, and outsiders were not really all that welcome.
NARRATOR: At Julian's insistence, Pikl took the job at DuPont and spent the rest of his career there. Julian returned to the job hunt.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): Day by day, as I entered these firms, presented my credentials and asked for a job, the answer almost seemed like it had been transmitted by wire from one firm to the other. It ran like this: "We've never hired a Negro research chemist before. We don't know how it would work out."
NARRATOR: Finally, Julian caught a break. The Institute of Paper Chemistry, in Appleton, Wisconsin, was prepared to make him an offer.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): And then they were informed by city attorneys that an old Appleton statute forbade Negroes from being housed in Appleton overnight. This, in the Year of our Lord, 1936!
But in that meeting, sat a board member, an Irishman named William J. O'Brien.
NARRATOR: O'Brien was vice president of the Glidden Company. He'd been looking for a sharp chemist to run the company's new Chicago laboratory. He offered Julian the job of Director of Research.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): I had already wired Anna, several times, that I had landed jobs, so this time I was a little more cautious: "Am considering offer Glidden Company in research at $5,000." Her reply came back: "What do you mean `considering?'"
JOHN KENLY SMITH: The fact that Percy Julian was hired to be the director of a laboratory, not just a member of a laboratory, is truly remarkable and unprecedented.
JAMES SHOFFNER: That was 10 years before Jackie Robinson. You know? And we look toward the Jackie Robinson example as being pivotal in opening up not just baseball, but a whole lot of other opportunities for black people.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): And so I came to Chicago and started in on another fascinating plant, the soybean.
NARRATOR: Neither Julian, nor anyone else in 1936, had any idea what a powerhouse the soybean would become.
Today the soybean is one of the pillars of American agriculture, second only to corn among the major crops. Seventy million acres of farmland are planted in soy, with an annual harvest worth more than $20 billion. Soy is used in a wide range of products, from food and medicine to paper and plastics.
TODD ALLEN (Soybean Farmer): It's a very widely used commodity. If you go down to the grocery store and look at the label, you'll find soybean oil in there somewhere.
Soybeans originally came into this country from China, as a hay crop for grazing, for beef cattle. But, also, it manufactures its own nitrogen, and back in the 1920s, well, then everybody needed that, because we didn't have a lot of commercial fertilizer back then.
But then, as our machinery developed, we learned that we could cut and process these soy beans and break them down into feed for our animals and soy oil for human consumption.
NARRATOR: But soybeans really took off in the 1930s, when industry discovered the plant, thanks, in part, to the efforts of an unlikely champion: automaker Henry Ford. Ford planted thousands of acres of soybeans, and alongside his Dearborn auto plant, he built a soybean laboratory and processing factory.
JOHN KENLY SMITH: Ford sets up a laboratory in the early 1930s, hires a young, self-trained chemist to run the laboratory, and they begin doing lots of experiments trying to figure how you could use soybeans in making cars.
NARRATOR: Out of his lab came new soybean-based auto paints, lubricating oils and soybean-based plastics that Ford turned into steering wheels, gearshift knobs and dent-proof fenders.
V/O (Film Clip): Industrial chemists are working to find new uses for soybean oil and soybean meal.
NARRATOR: Soon other industrialists were following Ford's lead, building soybean processing plants across the Midwest.
One of the first to embrace the "miracle bean" was Percy Julian's new boss, Adrian Joyce of the Glidden Company. Under Joyce, Glidden had grown from a single paint store in Cleveland into one of the nation's leading paint manufacturers.
JOHN KENLY SMITH: But Joyce didn't stop there. He diversified into a wide range of products. Durkee Famous Foods was a Glidden brand. He also moved into soybean processing.
NARRATOR: Convinced the soybean would be critical to Glidden's future, Joyce set up a new Soya Products Division in Chicago. The first assignment for his new research director: isolate the protein of the soybean, something that had never been done on an industrial scale.
Julian plunged into his new job, keenly aware that people were watching to see how this black chemist would measure up.
PETER WALTON: The people in the plant were always mindful of a white laboratory coat, a blur that might swoop down at any moment.
HELEN PRINTY: He would pester you at many times. He would keep, you know, wanting to know what was new, every half an hour, almost.
RISHER WATTS (Julian Laboratories Chemist): And he expected you to tell him something different every time he came in there, something that was favorable.
NARRATOR: But for more than a year, the news was not favorable.
RISHER WATTS: In chemistry, things don't ever go the way you plan it, because you've got reactions that are very critical; even a little variation in temperature, in concentration and time, and everything will give you a bad outcome.
NARRATOR: Eventually, Julian's chemists found just the right combination of time, temperature and acidity to pull the protein out of the soybean. Julian's "Alpha protein" was the first vegetable protein produced in bulk anywhere in America. It made millions for Glidden as a new industrial paper coating.
Later it would be a key ingredient in one of the first water-based, or "latex" house paints, Glidden's Spred Satin.
V/O (Paint Commercial): Get new Spred house paint.
NARRATOR: After Alpha protein, Adrian Joyce urged Julian to turn his attention to other parts of the soybean.
JOHN KENLY SMITH: Joyce was always trying to figure out every possible use for everything you have. Find out, "is there some chemical in here that we otherwise might be throwing down the drain, that we might be able to make money out of?"
NARRATOR: Julian drove his staff to turn the soybean inside out.
ARNOLD HIRSCH (Julian Laboratories Chemist): Julian wanted everyone to perform to the best of their ability, and he did everything in his power to motivate people to do that.
JAMES LETTON (Julian Laboratories Production Manager): I always thought he was a master psychologist. I think he was very much aware of what he was doing and who he was doing it to.
RISHER WATTS: His purpose was to get the best out of you. I think that's what it was all about.
NARRATOR: The chemistry invented by Julian and his team led to scores of new products. From soybean oil came lecithin, to make chocolate smoother, new salad oils and shortenings for Durkee, and a new non-spattering margarine.
HELEN PRINTY: Always when you were working on one thing, there was another thing coming up. You were always thinking ahead of time, what was the next big thing?
NARRATOR: From soybean meal came plastics, linoleum, plywood glue, high-protein livestock feed and dog food.
HELEN PRINTY: He was brilliant. He would set out a research project, and he would write the introduction and the description of the work, and a conclusion. He did everything except do the experiment.
GENE WOROCH (Glidden Chemist): And there would be a statement, something to the effect that, "The problem is solved; all that remains to be done is..." And many of us used to cringe at this, because it would be our responsibility to get this to work, and sometimes it didn't work.
RISHER WATTS: He was very demanding. And that was on a daily basis, I mean, because he had his hands on everything that went on.
V/O (Film Clip): Yes, there's magic in this Cinderella crop, and we've hardly scratched the surface.
NARRATOR: The stream of products coming out of Julian's lab joined the flood of household and industrial goods from Dow, DuPont and other companies whose chemistry was changing the way Americans lived.
V/O (Film Clip): ...nylon stockings, introduced in 1938. There's barely a minute of your time on Earth that is not in some way made secure and comfortable through chemistry.
JOHN KENLY SMITH: There was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for chemicals in the 1930s.
V/O (Film Clip): Here are the headquarters of a group of super-sleuths, engaged in solving some of the major mysteries of the universe. They take molecules apart and put them together again, in a different form, to make new and incredible things.
NARRATOR: People saw the industry as sort of the leading edge of high technology, of providing goods and services that were going to make people's lives better and to keep the economy growing.
V/O (Film Clip): The nation's industrial skyline parted in the middle, to make room for the growing chemical industry.
NARRATOR: Glidden's new soybean division was a success. Julian's reward was a raise that allowed him to be reunited with Anna. For the first three years of their marriage, she had been back east, earning her Ph.D. and working in the Washington public schools. Now she joined Percy in Chicago, at last.
As the couple settled into their new home, in the Westside community of Maywood, Anna learned just how driven her husband could be when it came to chemistry.
"Science can be a hard taskmaster," she would remember. "Dinner can be at seven or 11, as far as the true disciple of chemistry is concerned."
Glidden was delighted with Julian's chemistry, but Julian was becoming restless.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): I was itching to get away from dog foods, paint and oleomargarine, and to tackle nature again with more exacting methods.
HELEN PRINTY: Doctor Julian loved chemistry. He used to take the people that were working on the products for the Glidden Company and sneak us off and do other things that he was interested in, on the side.
NARRATOR: Julian was especially interested in a compound called progesterone.
V/O (Medical Film Clip): New ways of controlling fertility have begun to suggest...
NARRATOR: Discovered in 1934, progesterone was called the "pregnancy hormone," because it plays a central role in preparing a woman's uterus for childbirth.
HELEN PRINTY: Apparently, Mrs. Julian had had a couple of miscarriages. And doctors at that time had found that progesterone was essential to carrying a child to term.
WOMAN IN LABOR (Medical Film Clip): The pains are getting harder.
NARRATOR: In the 1930s, nearly one out every six pregnancies in America ended in miscarriage or premature birth.
DOCTOR (Medial Film Clip): Relax, your baby is almost here now.
NARRATOR: Hundreds of thousands of babies were lost each year. Julian realized that progesterone offered new hope. He and other chemists began looking for ways to make the hormone for pregnant women at risk.
Progesterone is one of a class of compounds called steroids, which scientists were just beginning to realize played many key roles in the body.
GREGORY PETSKO: They were involved in reproduction. They were involved in sexual development. They were involved in the response to injury and growth. And yet despite this enormous range of different physiological effects, these compounds all seemed to have similar chemical structures.
DAGMAR RINGE: The group of molecules that we call steroids all share a common framework, composed of these four-ring systems right here: a six-membered ring, fused to a second six-membered ring, fused to a third six-membered ring, fused to a five-membered ring.
NARRATOR: Dozens of steroid molecules are made by the body, ranging from cholesterol to digestive fluids to sex hormones, such as progesterone and testosterone. The anabolic steroids used by some athletes today are simply modified forms of the natural male hormone.
NED HEINDEL: Once it was recognized that the family of materials we call steroids had such an impact on human health, there became a global push: "Can we get these materials? Can we make them available?" And, "What sources do they come from?
NARRATOR: Chemists first tried isolating steroids from animal extracts like horse urine, but the process required vast amounts of raw material and yielded only tiny amounts of steroids.
GREGORY PETSKO: The breakthrough, in making steroids available, was the realization that you could take substances from plants that could form the starting point for the synthesis of steroids. That would give you a leg up on the process.
NARRATOR: In the mid-1930s, scientists had discovered that plants have steroids too, with the same four carbon rings found in animal steroids.
DAGMAR RINGE: It was only a very small leap to realize that one could convert a plant steroid into an animal steroid.
NARRATOR: The idea that plants made chemicals similar to human steroids was something Julian already knew. Back at DePauw, while researching physostigmine, Julian had set aside a dish of Calabar bean oil. A few days later, he found white crystals in the oil.
Searching the literature, he found that these crystals were a plant steroid called stigmasterol. Small amounts of stigmasterol were also found in soybean oil, and Julian now had plenty of that at Glidden. He was confident that he could convert it into progesterone, if he could find a way to extract this stigmasterol from the oil.
But Julian was not the only one who saw the potential of making steroids from plants. In 1938, a chemist named Russell Marker found a way to convert steroids from sarsaparilla root into progesterone, by chemically snipping off the "side chain" of extra atoms from the plant steroid. It was breakthrough chemistry, but progesterone made from sarsaparilla root was too expensive to be practical. The race was on for a cheaper source.
GREGORY PETSKO: I think that both Percy Julian and Russell Marker understood the medical implications of what they were trying to do, that they knew if those natural products could be provided in quantity, that the face of medicine would be changed.
NARRATOR: Marker published paper after paper, documenting his search for a plant that would yield cheap progesterone. Julian saw his chance slipping away. There wasn't much time for this kind of research amid the daily demands of his job.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): One day the phone rang, and the fellow said, "Doc, something's happened. Some water's leaked into Soybean Oil Tank No. 1, and it's spoiled. "Spoiled?" I said. "Spoiled? What do you mean spoiled?" Now, you understand, this tank contained 100,000 gallons of refined soybean oil bound for the Durkee Famous Foods plant. If it were ruined, Glidden would be out $200,000. And such a blunder might cost me my job, so I was over there in a jiffy.
NARRATOR: Julian found the giant tank fouled with white sludge. But his despair vanished in a flash of recognition: there were crystals in the sludge at the bottom of the tank. They were stigmasterol, the same crystals he'd found in the dish of Calabar oil. Now he realized what had forced the stigmasterol out of both oils, water.
JACK COOK: You couldn't destroy a 100,000-gallon tank of soybean oil to get this steroid out, but when you add a little water to it, it falls out. It precipitates. It separates on its own.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): And it was this little accidental discovery—the kind that characterize the development of science so often—that led to a practical method for the isolation of steroids from soybean oil.
NARRATOR: Now a step ahead of Marker, Julian developed an industrial process for converting stigmasterol into progesterone in bulk.
NED HEINDEL: Julian did not discover the primary chemistry that took stigmasterol over to progesterone—that came out of a German group five years earlier—but he was the first person to realize that it could be scaled up. A company that's in the paint business suddenly becomes a player in the human sex hormone game.
NARRATOR: In 1940, Julian sent a one-pound package of progesterone to the Upjohn pharmaceutical company. Shipped under armed guard and valued at nearly $70,000, it was the first commercial shipment of an artificial sex hormone produced anywhere in America.
Testosterone and other artificial sex hormones soon followed, bringing millions of dollars in unexpected revenue to Glidden.
Despite his growing stature, Julian was barred from a major hormone conference held at an exclusive resort in Maryland. Only after three days of protest by his white colleagues was he finally admitted.
Within a year, Julian would face a new challenge: his rival, Russell Marker, had discovered a giant yam in Mexico. It was even richer in steroids than soybeans. In 1944, Marker and two partners formed a company called Syntex to make hormones from the yam. For the rest of the decade, Syntex and Glidden would produce most of the world's supply of artificial sex hormones.
GREGORY PETSKO: I think the decision to make substances like steroids from plants, rather than from animal tissues, was a landmark in the history of medicine as well as the history of chemistry. It meant that you could take steroids that before were so rare that you barely knew what they were, and you could inject them into animals or people and see their effects on a variety of conditions. The possibilities that that opened up almost were limitless.
NARRATOR: The work of Julian and Marker would lay the foundation for a whole new class of medicines, including the birth control pill and a wonder drug that would soon take the world by storm.
By the mid-1940s, Julian's work at Glidden had won him national acclaim. With the outbreak of World War II, his Alpha protein became the chief ingredient in "bean soup," a fire-fighting foam credited with saving thousands of servicemen's lives. He was even featured in Reader's Digest, one of America's most popular magazines.
HELEN PRINTY: It was the beginning of white America's exposure to Dr. Percy Julian, and how he had to fight to overcome the odds of being a black man in America. And, in the context of the times, it made him a symbol.
JAMES SHOFFNER: Here was a person who looked like me, who was not only in the field, but succeeding magnificently at the top of his profession. That was profound.
NARRATOR: Julian was named to the boards of half a dozen colleges and universities. He was showered with awards and honorary degrees and sought after as a public speaker. The NAACP awarded him its prestigious Spingarn Medal, previously given to W.E.B. Du Bois, George Washington Carver, Paul Robeson and Thurgood Marshall. And the Chicago Sun-Times named him "Chicagoan of the Year."
As Julian's stature grew, so did his personal responsibilities. Anna had given birth to a son, Percy Jr., in 1940, and a daughter, Faith, four years later. With so many demands on Percy's time, Anna shouldered the parenting duties. "For the children," she later wrote, "an after-dinner visit with their father was a rare treat."
PERCY JULIAN, JR.: I hardly remember a weekend when he didn't work, but the time you had was quality time.
NARRATOR: By the end of the 1940s, the family had outgrown their Maywood home. The Julians began looking for a bigger one in a neighborhood that suited their new social status. They set their sights on Oak Park, one of Chicago's most affluent and exclusive suburbs.
The village was home to doctors, lawyers and wealthy businessmen. It had a reputation as a town for the educated and enlightened.
VIRGINIA CASSIN (Oak Park, Illinois Resident): It's always been a community that was...had a little sense of its importance as far as being, perhaps, a cut above others.
V/O MAN (Radio): Thanks to our good friends, the makers of Broadcast Brand corned beef hash.
NARRATOR: Oak Park even had its own radio show, familiar to listeners all over America as Breakfast with the Johnsons.
V/O CHILD (Radio): Daddy, I have to give a report in school, so I'm going to give it to you.
CLIFF JOHNSON (CBS radio host): These days, they'd call it reality radio, and that's what it was; 7:30 in the morning, Monday through Friday. The microphones were all over the house. The children would wander in, and the milkman would come in. We talked about us and the world around us.
NARRATOR: The world around the Johnsons was cultured, privileged and white. The few African Americans who lived in Oak Park worked as servants and laborers.
ROBERTA L. RAYMOND (Sociologist): When the Julians came along, I'm sure that this was a shock to many people who lived in Oak Park. Here they are, two very well educated people, both with Ph.D.s, he, a very successful chemist and businessman, and they purchased a house, a large house, on a large lot.
CLIFF JOHNSON: There was some nasty tongue-wagging going on: "Who do these people think they are that they can move in here and take over our neighborhood?"
NARRATOR: Trouble began even before the Julians could move in.
PERCY JULIAN, JR.: My dad was out of town, and my mom got a call from the Oak Park Fire Department. "Something has occurred at the house," this is the fire department, "could you please come." Even as a 10-year-old I knew that this was arson. There was no attempt to hide this, to make it look like an accident. I see these bottles, these huge bottles, and I could smell gasoline. The stairs were soaked all the way up to the second floor.
I think my mother was scared. But if she was, she didn't show it.
They lit the fuse on the outside. The door caught on, but it was sealed so well that the flames couldn't get under the door. But had the bottles caught, the flames would have gone right up the stairwell—a natural chimney—and the house could've been a total loss.
And I looked at my mom, and I said, "Why would anybody do this?" And she explained it: they didn't want us to live there and didn't want us to live there because of the color of our skin.
NARRATOR: Now Percy Julian, accomplished, affluent, ambitious, was face to face with the same violence African Americans all over Chicago were encountering as they tried to move into white neighborhoods.
VERNON JARRETT (Newspaper Reporter): After the war, when the ghetto was bursting at the seams and people trying to move out, every first Negro, they said, to move in a block was going to catch hell. A mob would be out there to greet you. I've seen it, covered it.
NARRATOR: There were no mobs in Oak Park, but the arson was a clear warning that some in the community would stop at nothing to keep the Julians out.
PERCY JULIAN, JR.: The arson attempt did not succeed in intimidating my mom and dad. Nor could it have. They were simply not intimidatable.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): Once the violence began, Anna and I felt we had no choice but to stay. To leave would have been cowardly and wrong. The right of a people to live where they want to, without fear, is more important than my science. I was ready to give up my science and my life to bring a halt to this senseless terrorism.
NARRATOR: The Julians moved in. And when a few months passed with no further trouble, Percy and Anna felt confident enough to go out of town, leaving the children with a babysitter.
PERCY JULIAN, JR.: The first my parents saw of it was when they saw it in the paper the next day, with me pointing to the hole in the ground.
CLIFF JOHNSON: I'll never forget the morning my daughter Sandra said, "Daddy, they bombed my friend Percy Julian's house last night." And then she said, "Daddy, why did they do that? Why would they bomb their house?" I put on a record, because I didn't have the answer.
PERCY JULIAN, JR.: My dad was angry when he came home, I mean really angry, and clearly ready to fight. He looked at this as an attempt to murder his kids. For him, there was nothing redeemable about them at all. I'm taking this in like there's no tomorrow.
And actually, you know how everything has a good side? The good side was, as a kid I got to spend more time with my dad, and got to stay up late,'cause we'd sit in the tree outside. He'd sit there with a shotgun. And we'd talk about why someone would want to do this and how wrong it was and how stupid it was.
NARRATOR: The Julians would continue to receive threatening letters for years after. No one was ever arrested. Many Oak Park residents were horrified at the violence against the family.
VIRGINIA CASSIN: I think people were shocked that anyone should be treated that way. And there were people who came forward to say, there are a lot of us that don't feel that way.
CLIFF JOHNSON: There was at least 200 or more people that marched right up in front of the Julian house on East Avenue and said "He stays, he stays."
NARRATOR: Even as events in Oak Park threatened to upend his personal life, a new scientific challenge was drawing Percy Julian into one of the great medical dramas of the 20th century.
At the center was one of the oldest and most painful of human diseases, rheumatoid arthritis.
CHARLES PLOTZ (Rheumatologist): Arthritis is a generic word for inflammation of the joints, and encompasses a lot of different diseases. But the disease that truly inflames the joint and causes destruction of the cartilage and the bone within the joint is rheumatoid arthritis.
NARRATOR: Scientists had been seeking a cure for rheumatoid arthritis for hundreds of years. But by the middle of the 20th century those efforts had yielded only a bizarre assortment of mostly ineffective treatments: chin slings, gold injections, mineral baths, cobra venom, bee stings, even electricity.
CHARLES PLOTZ: People would swear by them, but nothing, over the long run, worked.
NARRATOR: The situation changed dramatically at the 1949 annual meeting of American rheumatologists. Philip Hench, of the Mayo Clinic, presented a film showing how arthritis patients responded to a new drug, called Compound E, and later named "cortisone."
CHARLES PLOTZ: They were severely crippled, having to drink by holding a cup in both hands. And Philip Hench gave them an injection, and within 12 to 24 hours, the same patients were having no difficulty at all. It was one of the most astonishing things that has ever happened in medicine. You didn't need a double-blind study. You just saw it happen. And the audience stood up and cheered.
Well, every patient with rheumatoid arthritis immediately wanted to be put on this magic drug.
NARRATOR: The problem was there was none to be had. Hench had performed his tests with a few precious grams of cortisone sent to him by Lewis Sarett, a young chemist at Merck.
Sarett had worked for years to synthesize cortisone from the bile of slaughtered oxen. But his chemical pathway was the most complex ever attempted in industry, requiring more than 30 steps. And thousands of cattle carcasses would be needed to make enough cortisone to treat a single patient for a year.
To treat the millions suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, scientists would need to find more a plentiful starting material and simplify the process of producing cortisone. Chemists from all over the world sprang to the challenge, launching one of the most intensive research efforts in the history of medicine.
Julian threw himself into the effort.
JOHN KENLY SMITH: The only reason that Glidden is in the great cortisone race is because of Percy Julian. He knows this chemistry, and so he can establish a position for them. The American pharmaceutical industry, after World War II, is not the giant that we know of today. This business is really just getting going, so there is room for entrepreneurs in this period.
NARRATOR: One of those entrepreneurs was Carl Djerassi, then a young chemist at Syntex, the small Mexican company that made hormones from yams.
CARL DJERASSI (Syntex Chemist): Julian and I were competitors, and we were in this race with people at Harvard, and at Oxford, and in Zurich, and at Merck, and, I mean, all the major companies. It was one time when basic research in industry competed on equal terms with that in universities.
NARRATOR: The prize these chemists were after was not actually a drug but a natural hormone. Cortisone is one of the many hormones made by the adrenal glands, two small organs that lie atop the kidneys. Small amounts of cortisone are always circulating in the bloodstream, controlling the body's responses to stress and inflammation, but much larger doses of cortisone were needed to relieve the symptoms of arthritis.
Julian hoped to make cortisone from soybeans, just as he had the sex hormones. Like progesterone, cortisone had the same four interlocking rings of carbon known as the steroid nucleus, but cortisone has an unusual feature: one of its oxygen atoms is in what chemists call position 11. Julian set out to make cortisone by first synthesizing an almost identical compound called Reichstein's Substance S, or Compound S.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): Look at the two formulae. Compound S differs from cortisone by one lone little oxygen atom. And it couldn't possibly be so strikingly different in properties, I thought. And if it is, why in the devil, did nature have to put so much in the adrenal glands?
Well, if you really think nature is smart, your guess would be that it's there as a reservoir from which the adrenals can make cortisone as the body needs it, by simply sticking in this one oxygen atom.
NARRATOR: Julian hoped to convert Compound S into cortisone, as the body does, but he knew that inserting that one oxygen atom in exactly the right place would not be a simple matter.
GREGORY PETSKO: In the body, there's a special enzyme that knows how to do this, and does it, very elegantly, in a simple reaction. But to do this chemically, in the lab, in large quantities, was fiendishly difficult.
DAGMAR RINGE: In the laboratory, in order to add any atom to this carbon atom requires severe conditions, high heat, high pressure, very reactive reagents that will attack this atom. The difficulty with those conditions is that they will attack every other carbon atom on this skeleton as well.
GREGORY PETSKO: You want to put the oxygen only in that position. It doesn't do you any good to put it there if, simultaneously, you put it somewhere else where it's not supposed to be.
NARRATOR: Chemists across the world faced the same challenge. Whatever material they started with, plant or animal, they had to find a way to insert that one oxygen atom into just the right position. This was the single biggest obstacle to making cortisone.
As Julian struggled to find a solution, Glidden executives were losing patience with his Compound S approach.
GREGORY PETSKO: It's hard to read another chemist's mind, but I think that Julian probably knew that this was so close to the final structure of cortisone, that if he could make Substance S in large quantities, inexpensively, he would, eventually, or someone would, eventually, find a way to insert that troublesome oxygen into the 11 position, because that was the only remaining step needed to convert that substance into the full-blown hormone, cortisone.
NARRATOR: But the problem of inserting that one oxygen atom continued to frustrate chemists for more than two years. The cortisone shortage became a crisis, as the price topped $4,000 an ounce, one hundred times the price of gold.
CHARLES PLOTZ: I would get requests from all over the country, "Can't you get me some cortisone? Can't you get me a little cortisone for me? For my aunt? For my patient?" And I couldn't get it, for me or for anybody.
NARRATOR: Finally, in the summer of 1951, four teams of chemists announced they had found new ways to make cortisone. The winners included teams from Harvard, Merck and Syntex.
CARL DJERASSI: We got an enormous amount of publicity, including LIFE magazine and places like this, and that put Syntex on the scientific map.
NARRATOR: But the chemists' glory was short-lived. Six months later, they were upstaged by a surprising discovery from scientists at Upjohn, in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
V/O (Film Clip): From laboratories in Michigan comes the new process for making unlimited quantities of cortisone.
CARL DJERASSI: That bubble of conceit and pride and pleasure was completely punctured, when we discovered there were these yokels in Kalamazoo who, in one step, did something that took us 15 steps—very clever steps—to do.
NARRATOR: These so-called "yokels" had discovered a common mold that could effortlessly insert an oxygen atom into the 11 position.
GREGORY PETSKO: Upjohn figured out that they could do it by a fermentation process. In other words, it wasn't done in a chemistry lab at all. It was done by a microorganism that possessed an enzyme that was capable, just like the human body is capable, of attaching an oxygen in exactly the right place.
NARRATOR: Upjohn's discovery was the breakthrough that would end the cortisone shortage. Its mold could work its oxygen-inserting magic on a range of steroid materials, including Julian's Compound S.
GREGORY PETSKO: All of a sudden, Substance S was very important. This compound, that didn't have any particular important biological activities of its own, became ideal as a starting material to produce cortisone. And Julian was sitting on the process to make that.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): Many well-meaning people have exaggerated my contribution to the chemistry of the cortisone family of drugs. I've even read somewhere that I was "the discoverer of cortisone." Not so. But we made a good choice, indeed, in choosing to synthesize Compound S as our first endeavor. Cortisone could now be made from Compound S simply by dumping it into a tank, throwing in a microorganism and fishing out cortisone after the organism has done its work.
NARRATOR: But Julian's Compound S was not the only material Upjohn's mold could transform into cortisone.
CARL DJERASSI: Suddenly, Upjohn came to Syntex—I still remember, because I was there—and said, "Would you quote us the cost of progesterone at a ton level." Well, we were completely flabbergasted. At that time, still, the world demand was a few hundred kilos.
NARRATOR: The request could mean only one thing: Upjohn had decided to produce cortisone from progesterone made by Syntex, not from Julian's Compound S.
Syntex had a big advantage: its starting material, the Mexican yam, was a richer source of steroids than the soybean, so cortisone made this way was cheaper.
But other companies were also gearing up to produce cortisone. Julian could still win their business, if he abandoned soybeans and made Compound S from the Mexican yam. But when Julian appealed to Glidden's chairman to make the switch, the answer was, "No."
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): I begged him to hold on; we could set up a simple yam processing plant in Mexico, and with Glidden's influence we could soon be masters of the field. But he had other plans for me in paint and varnish chemistry, new paint to prevent icing on airplane propellers, new shortenings that didn't spatter.
JOHN KENLY SMITH: I think the steroid work that Julian was doing was just one of those little businesses that no longer were seen as important to the company and its future direction.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): They sent me to Europe, for a vacation, to forget about it. And, on my return, the chairman announced that Glidden was going out of the steroid business altogether.
HELEN PRINTY: This was a blow to the heart of Doc. And he said he didn't know whether he'd be able to stand that, because if there was no steroid research, there was nothing that he could really interest himself in.
NARRATOR: Joyce licensed Compound S to Pfizer and Syntex and ordered Julian to teach their chemists how to use the process he'd invented.
HELEN PRINTY: And things just kept getting worse and worse and worse, until finally it just became untenable for him.
NARRATOR: In late 1953, Percy Julian walked away from the job into which he'd put the most productive years of his life.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): And when I left Glidden, I left behind 109 patents, for which I received $109 and other valuable considerations.
NARRATOR: One of those patents was for Compound S. Just as Julian predicted, it went on to become a key ingredient in the production of cortisone, helping to make the drug available to millions at a reasonable price.
GREGORY PETSKO: The fact that Julian could do what he did, while working in a paint company, strikes me as just remarkable. He didn't just do these things because glory would be his, if he succeeded. There always is, in Julian's work, this sense of aiming for something big, because it's going to be useful for people.
NARRATOR: But to fulfill his ambition Julian would now have to reinvent himself as a businessman in one of the most cutthroat industries in America.
Within a few months Julian was back on his feet as president of his own chemical company in Franklin Park, outside Chicago.
HELEN PRINTY: We had left the Glidden Company and moved out to this place that was loaded with rats and mice and everything else. You couldn't eat your lunch without a mouse coming out.
PETER WALTON: Working conditions, I guess, would be considered primitive.
NARRATOR: But for Julian it was the chance of a lifetime. After 18 years at Glidden, he was his own boss, free to focus on work that excited him.
His plan for success was simple: Julian Laboratories would make steroid intermediates, compounds that were often just one step short of a finished product. The big pharmaceutical companies would buy them, because Julian could make them faster and cheaper than they could.
From his old friends at Upjohn, Julian quickly landed a contract for $2 million worth of progesterone. More business followed from Ciba, Pfizer, Merck and others. There was just one obstacle: Syntex, the Mexican company that now dominated the hormone business.
Syntex controlled the supply of the Mexican yam, or barbasco, root. Julian needed an extract from the root to make his intermediates cheaply, but Syntex refused to sell him any. It was a setback that threatened the company.
PETER WALTON: Having put it all on the line with these major pharmaceutical companies, he had to deliver the goods, had to.
NARRATOR: To get around Syntex, Julian would have to build his own $300,000 barbasco processing plant in Mexico.
PETER WALTON: Dr. Julian didn't have the necessary capital himself. The conventional...normal banking sources were off limits to people of color, period.
NARRATOR: Using personal savings and money from friends and private investors, Julian was able to build the plant. But then, another roadblock: the Mexican government, closely tied to Syntex, refused him a permit to harvest the barbasco root. His expensive Mexican factory was useless.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): And there we stood, with our beautiful plant, our beautifully lighted water tower with Laboratorios de Julian de Mexico emblazoned on it, a mausoleum. I sat in a hotel in Mexico City wondering whether I should shoot my brains out.
PETER WALTON: There was enormous pressure on Dr. Julian, because the financial stakes were huge, were huge. He had everything invested, between Franklin Park and Mexico, and so this was a pressure, pressure time.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): And then a strange thing happened. There was a knock on the door, and in came a man named Abraham Zlotnik, a man that I had helped out of Hitler's Germany. Abe said he was sure the yam grew in Guatemala, and he volunteered to make an expedition for me. I told him I was broke, ruined. I didn't know when I could pay him back. But he said, "You've already paid me back."
NARRATOR: Zlotnik was as good as his word. His expedition found the barbasco root in Guatemala. Julian now had the raw material he needed to achieve his goal: making steroid drugs available to all who needed them.
JAMES LETTON: He always talked about being able to lower the cost of some of these anti-inflammatory agents, these steroids, so that the common man could buy them.
NARRATOR: Even if it meant lower profits for Julian Laboratories. One year his chemists found a way to quadruple the yield on a product on which they were barely breaking even.
JAMES LETTON: I thought, personally, that that was a good opportunity to recover some profits from the low yields of the previous year. Instead, he dropped the price of this stuff from $4,000 a kilo down to about $400 a kilo. And I couldn't understand why he would do that.
HELEN PRINTY: He wanted to make money, but he also wanted things to be available for people.
NARRATOR: Much of Julian's own money was still tied up in his idle Mexican plant. To make good on that investment he would have to resolve some unfinished business with an old rival.
V/O MAN (Senate Hearing Dramatization): Would Dr. Percy Julian come forward?
NARRATOR: Julian believed Syntex had used its influence with the Mexican government to keep his factory from opening. After other American companies made similar charges, the Senate held public hearings in 1956. Julian was the star witness.
HOLLABAUGH (Senate Hearing Dramatization): Was there any company in Mexico objecting to your getting a permit?
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): It became very evident that the Syntex Company was objecting to the permit. In fact, Dr. Somlo told me he would fight to the last to keep me and anyone else out of Mexico.
NARRATOR: As a result of the "wonder drug" hearings, the Justice Department took action against Syntex. Julian was finally able to open his Mexican plant, but the mounting pressures of running a business left him little time to savor the hard-won victory.
Every month there were shipments to make and severe financial penalties for missed deadlines.
PETER WALTON: We lived, for the most part, in a highly stressed, very competitive environment—a small company, limited resources, and dealing with a huge industry.
EARL DAILEY (Julian Laboratories Chemist): There were many occasions where 2, 3:00 in the morning would come, and you'd still be in the laboratory, working.
PETER WALTON: When I complained about the lack of sleep, Dr. Julian advised me that sleep could be dangerous for my health. I could die in my sleep, and "while you're contemplating that, go back out to the plant and continue to work. We have a shipment to get out."
JAMES LETTON: But there was an unusual sense of loyalty that made people work and want to see him and the company successful. How else could you get a crew to work 24 hours a day? This sort of thing.
NARRATOR: And successful it was. Julian Laboratories would eventually make its founder a millionaire, one of the wealthiest black businessmen in America. For his chemists, the reward was an opportunity hard to find anywhere else: a chance to work in their chosen field.
JAMES LETTON: When I was looking for a job, some people made excuses, and then there were some that just said, "We don't hire you people."
TOM WEST (Julian Laboratories Chemist): They told me that I was too well qualified to take a job. I felt that they were saying, "Come back maybe another time. Come back when you're white."
NARRATOR: Scores of chemists, unwelcome elsewhere, would use their years with Julian as a springboard to careers in industry and academia.
PETER WALTON: I'm proud to say that our laboratories in Franklin Park employed more black chemists than any other facility in America. On the other hand, for such a small organization to have such a significant role in true integration is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in America.
NARRATOR: Outside Julian's lab, America was still a nation divided by race, and Julian was constantly reminded of it, even at meetings of the American Chemical Society.
EDWARD MEYER (Glidden Chemist): When we went to the meeting he said, "Ed, grab me by the arm, when we go in, so people will know that we're together." Because he was afraid they'd...being a black man, they'd throw him out.
NARRATOR: Neither wealth nor fame could insulate Julian from bigotry. But with success came the chance to do something about it. Increasingly, he set aside his science to fight for racial equality.
He joined the NAACP and the Urban League in their battle against discrimination in jobs and housing. He led a national fundraising campaign to support civil rights lawyers. And in speech after speech, he preached that education and the pursuit of excellence, the hallmarks of his own life, were the keys to black advancement.
But many younger African Americans were impatient with traditional tactics and rejected the sermons of Julian's generation.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): Our children and our grandchildren saw all of this and suffered for their oft-times "Uncle Tom" parents who seemed to be doing nothing about it. Finally, their pent up agony exploded on us.
PERCY JULIAN, JR.: I would say, "Explain this to me: how is it that this is all going to change?" He would say, "Well, it will. There are lawyers, and they are going to fight for change. And if you set an example, things will change." Well, I don't have forever.
NARRATOR: In the1960s, Julian's son drove to Nashville to join the effort to desegregate the city's lunch counters.
PERCY JULIAN, JR.: On the one hand, he was very proud, but on the other, he was very scared. One time he said to me, "You know, this is not a game. These people are playing for real." And my response was, "So are we."
NARRATOR: The '60s were an awakening for Julian. He came to see that the nation could not afford to wait for the old ways to work.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): For more than a century, since the end of slavery, we have watched the denial of elemental liberty to millions of black people in our southland.
PERCY JULIAN, JR.: I think he saw that things were moving so fast, that if the country didn't change, there was going to be serious, serious trouble.
NARRATOR: By the late 1960s, Julian had come to support the more confrontational tactics of his son's generation.
PERCY JULIAN, JR.: My father wrote, later, it wasn't going to be enough just to be a model citizen, to be educated, to do all the things that anybody could possibly expect of you, because none of that would ever change the fact that you still couldn't go and eat in a restaurant that didn't want to serve you.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): Branded, first, unfit to spend their money for food or drink in public places along with other Americans; denied the ballot and confined to ghettoes that stifled hope and ambition, victims of murder of the mind, heart and spirit: this is the story of the American Negro.
NARRATOR: Percy Julian's own story now entered its final chapter. Born in 1899, he was now in his 70s and a proud grandfather.
KATHERINE JULIAN, M.D. (Percy Julian's Granddaughter): I definitely was aware that my grandfather was special. I remember playing with a doll that had been sent to him by a woman, and the story was told me why it had been sent. She had such bad arthritis that she couldn't use her hands. And after using cortisone, she was able to knit this doll and sent it to him. And I remember holding the doll and playing with the doll, and realizing that he had helped her, and that that was something that was really special.
NARRATOR: For his contributions to humanity, Julian received 18 honorary degrees and more than a dozen civic and scientific awards.
BERNHARD WITKOP: There was hardly any college that didn't try to honor itself by naming Percy Julian as an honorary Ph.D., because that was the time when people tried to make up for past injustice.
NARRATOR: Julian's longtime friend Bernhard Witkop envisioned a higher honor. He secretly began a campaign to elect Julian to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. It was an uphill battle.
BERNHARD WITKOP: We had, sometimes, prejudicial talk in the Academy, by old timers. Some were very famous people and Nobel laureates who couldn't get used to the new situation.
NARRATOR: Witkop persisted, and in 1973, Julian received an unexpected phone call from the Academy's home secretary.
BERNHARD WITKOP: He said, "Sir, may I inform you that you have just been elected a member of the National Academy. Congratulations."
NARRATOR: Julian was only the second African American to be elected. It was the crowning recognition of 40 years of chemical research.
NED HEINDEL: If you look at Percy Julian's career, you can say, if this man had not been black, he could have been a chaired professor at any Ivy or Big Ten institution. The breadth of his understanding of chemistry, and his fire in the belly to produce so many results in such a short period of time, this is Nobel Laureate stuff.
NARRATOR: Looking back in the autobiography he would never finish, Julian offered his own assessment of his life in science.
PERCY JULIAN (Dramatization): I feel that my own good country robbed me of the chance for some of the great experiences that I would have liked to live through. Instead, I took a job where I could get one and tried to make the best of it. I have been, perhaps, a good chemist, but not the chemist that I dreamed of being.
NARRATOR: In April 1975, a week after his 76th birthday, Percy Julian died of cancer. His pallbearers included the chemists who had been his friends and colleagues.
Every year, the U.S. Postal Service issues a commemorative stamp to honor an African American leader. In 1993, the choice was Percy Julian.
HELEN PRINTY: As a human being, I think that he was a source of inspiration to many, many, many people.
NARRATOR: In 1999, the American Chemical Society recognized Julian's synthesis of the glaucoma drug physostigmine as one of the top 25 achievements in the history of American chemistry.
The plaque is housed in the new Percy Julian Science Center at DePauw.
GREGORY ROBINSON: For him to have accomplished what he did, with the resources that he had, is still amazing.
NARRATOR: Across the world today, millions of people benefit from steroid medications based on the chemistry of plants. Some of these drugs are still made from soybeans, using chemical steps much like those Percy Julian pioneered.
GREGORY PETSKO: Here was a man who not only had to overcome the disadvantages of his race, but who, throughout his entire life, was in a situation that was never ideal for doing the big things he was trying to do. Looking over his life, one has a sense that here is a man of great determination. And it's a determination not just to succeed, but a determination to make a difference, to make a contribution.
JAMES ANDERSON: His story is really a contradictory one; it's two stories. It is a story of great accomplishments, of heroic efforts and overcoming tremendous odds. But it's also a story of talent squandered, of potential stifled. It's a story about this country. It's a story about who we are and what we stand for, and the challenges that have been there, and the challenges that are still with us.
Words spoken by the Julian character in this program were drawn from Percy Julian's writings and congressional testimony.
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NOVA extends special thanks to Dr. James P. Shoffner, a tireless champion whose efforts over eight years were critical to the making of this film.
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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 9901978. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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