Black chemist Percy Julian met with every possible barrier in a deeply segregated America. Here's how he rose to the highest levels of scientific and personal achievement.
How Percy Julian Became a Great 20th Century Scientist
Published: January 27, 2021
Onscreen: Chemist Percy Julian began his training at Harvard.
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.
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.
Julian went straight to work, designing a new chemistry building and honing a distinctive lecture style.
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: 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.
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.
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: 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.
Courtney B. Vance
PERCY JULIAN ACTOR
Llewellyn M. Smith
Llewellyn M. Smith
Words spoken by the Julian character in this program were drawn from Percy Julian's writings and congressional testimony.
Llewellyn M. Smith
DIRECTOR OF RESEARCH
CAST (in order of appearance)
Percy Julian - Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Percy Julian, 10 Yrs Old - Raymond Lambert
Lynching Victim - Shawn Agard
James Julian - Gregory Velez
Young Percy Julian - Ray Almeida
Percy's Mother - Bobbie Patrick
Great Grandmother - Carmen Dillon
Grandfather - Edward Logan
Grandmother - Ceoria Coates
Prof. Blanchard - Donald Watson
Josef Pikl - Jonathan Niles
Anna Julian - Pamela Lambert
Percy Julian Jr. - Langston Toxey
Counsel Hollabaugh - Sean McGuirk
Senate Chairman O'mahoney - Frank Harrison
Casting Boston Casting, Inc.
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Percy L. Julian Jr.
Frank M. Hauser
Rhoda & Jim Morris
Ned D. Heindel
Darlene Clark Hine
John Kenly Smith Jr.
Kenneth R. Manning
Christopher R. Reed
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Percy L. Julian Jr.
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.
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