Forgotten Genius

Julian Speaks

On the wonders of plants as natural laboratories

I don't think that you can possibly embrace the kind of joy which one who has worked with plants and plant structures such as I have over a period of nearly 40 years, how wonderful the plant laboratory seems. There is never any end to the story.

I remember as a boy of 17 years of age, this was a fascinating thing for me: how we human beings breathe out carbon dioxide into the air, the leaves of plants pick this carbon dioxide up, and the plant gives off oxygen, which we can breathe in and keep our life going.

This is given to you as a beginning student very simply, and yet in the course of that transformation a very vicious poison occurs. The carbon dioxide goes into carbonic acid, the carbonic acid into formic acid, the formic acid into formaldehyde. And we wonder how a plant can stand formaldehyde, because that's the thing that you zoology students pickle your fish in, and pickle your other animals, and so it's a pretty deadening poison.

But it is interesting to see that the plant structure takes care of all of that. Immediately it uses up this formaldehyde with a means to transform it into wonderful structures, all sorts of plant alkaloids, as we call them, some of them being our choicest medicines and drugs. And so these fascinating laboratories of the plant really make the psalmist's words true: "Consider the lilies of the field: they toil not, neither do they spin, and yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these."


On the language of chemists as gobbledygook

I don't want to frighten those of you who are not familiar with organic chemistry. I should have said in the beginning that one hardly expects an organic chemist to be able to speak without his gobbledygook in his language. As a matter of fact, one hardly expects a scientist to speak without that, and therefore scientists are usually and traditionally poor speakers, I warn you.

The late Sir J. B. S. Haldane, the great biologist, put it rather aptly when he said that our language doesn't lend itself to poetry. "Ladybird, ladybird fly away home" becomes impossible when you must call the ladybird Coccinella bipunctata.

And "A primrose by the river's brim, a yellow primrose was to him" loses all of the flavor of Wordsworth when the primrose becomes a specimen of Primula vulgaris. My little daughter Faith who she's no longer little now. I see her sitting in the audience here. When she was six years old - my daughter's a student here at Indiana University, I'm proud to say. When she was six years old and some people were making a bit of fuss over her daddy, about his new synthesis of cortisone, and they were giving me at that time I believe making me "Chicagoan of the Year" or some such something. And Faith had heard the word cortisone so much, she says, "Daddy, what is cortisone?" So I said, "Well, Faith, strictly speaking, it is 4-pregnane, 3-11-20 trione, 17-21-dio, 21 acetane." "Dear heavens, Daddy, what is it not strictly speaking?"


On marriage and landing a big job

I got a call from the vice president of the Glidden Company, asking me if I wouldn't come to meet him in Chicago for an interview, that they had were thinking of offering me a position with the Glidden Company in research.

Well, I was teaching at DePauw then, earning the magnificent salary in the midst of the Depression of $150 a month. And I wanted to get married to my dear wife, who's here. She was earning much more than that already. You see, that's a terrible way to start out. I'm married to a dear little girl who holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and a PhD degree from the University of Pennsylvania. That's pretty bad on an old man, you know. And she happens, by historical coincidence, to be the first woman whom Pennsylvania ever gave the Phi Beta Kappa key to.

So I wanted to marry this girl, but I was too poor to do so, and so I had to do something. So I immediately wired her and told her to impress her with my importance that I was being offered a job at the Glidden Company paying me $500 a month, and I was considering it. I'm told that her father said, in his rather gruff way, "What the hell is he considering?" Dr. Johnson, her father, was a pretty outspoken man.

Now, the story in back of that I can't help but just tell you quickly. The story in back of it, it wasn't a miracle after all. I'd sent many of my students from DePauw to the Institute of Paper Chemistry at Appleton for their doctorate degrees, and I'd become quite well acquainted with the institute, which trained specialists in paper chemistry. And the institute had decided to take pity on a young fellow who really should have opportunity to earn a little bit more money so he could get married and start life, to offer me a job in research. But while the board of the institute was meeting they had to meet because they had been informed of an old statute on the books of Appleton, Wisconsin which said that no Negro should be bedded or boarded in the city of Appleton overnight. This was back in the early 1930s. And so the board met in emergency session to know what they could do with this man to whom they'd offered a job.

Now, vice president of the Glidden Company was on that board, and he said to himself, so he said to me later, "Well, if he's half as good as they say he is, we might be able to use him at Glidden." So he slipped out of the meeting and called me, and I said to him rather haughtily, "Why, sir, I would like to consider your job, but I have already accepted a job." Oh yes, you know, we young people can get very important when we're young, you know. And so I told him I would like to consider it. He said, "Well, I think you better come up right away." I told my father about the thing. My father was quite a wise man. He said, "You know, something tells me you ought to go." And so I got a job.


On bold endeavors with the soybean

Now, I landed at the Glidden Company, and when I got there I found out that they wanted to make me director of research, which was a surprise. And so I started in on another very fascinating plant, the soybean.

We got busy with this soybean. We dared to do something rather bold. We thought we would isolate this protein, pure. And I built a plant for isolating this protein from the soybean, the first venture that had been attempted in history to prepare a pure vegetable protein by isolating it from a plant. Fifty percent of the weight of the soybean is protein. And what a protein! No other protein that we've known comes so nearly to the basic protein of animals and humans as soybean protein.

And we did isolate this protein from the soybeans, the first plant was—we produced five tons a day. Some few years later that was increased to 10 tons, and then, by the time I left the Glidden Company, to 15 tons a day. I called yesterday to find out actually how much was being produced daily now in this plant, and they're producing 50 tons of pure soy protein a day now from this plant. Most of it goes into the coating and sizing of magazine and book paper, one of the greatest inventions, I think, that has been put on the market for a long time.

Having had to serve as director of research for the Durkee Famous Foods division of the Glidden Company, I got interested in margarine and liquid shortenings, and then with this protein here to feed the animals of the nation. And this is the reason why it is grown, so our animals are better fed than we are with protein, richly fed with protein. And so we got to putting it into dog foods instead of the meat, which they couldn't get for dog foods. In fact, I tasted Red Hot Dog Food so often that I could well understand how one lady went down to the store the other day and said, "I'd like some of that corned beef hash that my husband brought home one night. It's just fine." And she handed the man the can. The label was off of it, but he turned around and looked on the other side of the can. He knew it was dog food, and he didn't want to tell the woman so, so he said, "My dear lady, we are completely out of that, the demand has been so great."

Well, I could tell that they might like it because we made a pretty good dog food. Red Hot was our specialty at that company.


On a "miracle" accident

Sometimes miracles happen. One day the phone rang. I was troubleshooter in the plant, considered so by the fellows out there. They all came to the boss to see what miracles he could do whenever anything bad happened. And the fellow said, "Doctor, something has happened. Some water leaked into this 100 tank number one, 100,000-gallon tank of soybean oil." That was worth at that time $160,000. And he said, "Some water's leaked into it, and the tank of oil is spoiled." I said, "Spoiled, what do you mean?"

I saw myself being called up on the president's carpet for $160,000 worth of oil going just like that. He says, "Why, some water's leaked into it, and it's full of white solids. It's just full of white solids, floating around in it and settling down on the bottom." I said, "What?" And I was over there in a jiffy.

And it was this little accidental discovery, which kind of accidents characterize the development of science so often, led to a practical way for the isolation of the steroids and the sterols from the soybean oil.

We centrifuged that oil and got out these white solids of soy sterols, and we sold them promptly for $200 a pound. We got more money out of the soybean sterols than we would have gotten out of the whole tank of oil. Why? Because the beginning of Fernholz in Goettingen, and Windaus and Butenandt in Goettingen, had shown that the sex hormones could be made from these soybean sterols.

We were soon able, ourselves, to put on the market the female and the male hormones, progesterone and testosterone.


On turning down an offer from President Truman

When the National Science Foundation was first established, President Truman made me a director; I happened to be appointed one of the first directors. All I can do now is frame it, because I never acted as a director, because I was called to Cleveland, to headquarters one day, and I was told I was fired. And I said, "How come?" And he said, "Well, I thought of you just as a son of mine, but no man will accept an appointment from Truman and stay on my staff."

Now, the strange thing about this was that I had not accepted the appointment yet. I had not accepted the appointment. I had written to President Truman and said that I was highly honored by the appointment, that I would be very happy to ... I was writing to my headquarters to find out whether or not it would be agreeable to my firm that I accept it.

I was a good little boy, but before this happened, the Cleveland Plain Dealer had published the appointments of Truman. The president naturally considered that poor little Percy Julian would certainly accept his appointment, and moreover, I wasn't, you know, deluged with pride. Because I knew that the president ... This was quite political with the president. He wanted to have one Negro on the science board, and if he could find one, he was going to have one on there.

So I knew that I was just an instrument in destiny, and so I went to the interview with the president of the Glidden Company, and I asked him why, and he told me, and I said, "You are you referring to the appointment to the National Science Foundation?" "Yes." And I said, "Well, you should have a letter in your morning mail asking you if it were alright for me to accept the appointment." He came over and put his arms around me. He said, "I knew you wouldn't do that to me. I knew you wouldn't do that to me."

And then, you know, after somebody is nice to you and you've been nice, then you get mad, you know? And so I said, "But I don't like this, Mr. Joyce, this smacks of slavery. My ancestors were slaves and I hate slavery." "Well," he said, "now you just tell the president that for the time being you are in the midst of such work that you can't accept the appointment." I wrote to President Truman, "Dear Mr. President," and etcetera with how honored I was and so on, "The president of the Glidden Company informs me that I cannot accept your gracious appointment." This didn't please him so well, but at least I stayed on the job.


On the advent of birth control pills

It is stated that by the year 2800 men and women upon the face of the Earth will be struggling for space if the present rate of population continues. The population explosion is not a myth; it is a very serious thing. And now we have the means, the first means, with which safely to control this situation with intelligence.

What shall we do about it is one of the great questions facing the human race at this time. Moral and ethical principles must be conserved, the family tradition, it seems, must not be broken, and yet all of this will be possible, I believe, with care taken, as it should be taken, in the prosecution of this fine development of science.


The text transcript at left is provided for printing purposes. Please visit our interactive version to hear the audio of Percy Julian's speech.

Feature produced by Susan K. Lewis, with audio editing by David Levin.

Forgotten Genius Home | Send Feedback | Image Credits | Support NOVA

© | Created January 2007