Percy Julian: First African-American Chemist Inducted into the National Academy of Sciences
Percy Julian was an African-American born in Alabama at a time when Jim Crow laws dominated the culture. He was able to obtain a doctorate in chemistry when society made such things almost impossible for African-Americans. Julian obtained over 129 patents and started his own successful business. His research is considered to have been the foundation for creating modern-day steroid medications and more.
Percy Lavon Julian was born on April 11, 1899, in Montgomery, Alabama. His parents were James and Elizabeth Julian. Each of them had graduated from Alabama State University. Julian's father worked for the United States Post Office. Julian's mother worked as a schoolteacher. His childhood was at a time when the southern United States were ruled by racism. Percy Julian had childhood memories of seeing a man who had been lynched hanging from a tree. This happened when he was going to school through the woods near his home.
Where Julian lived in Alabama, there were no schools open to black students beyond the eighth grade. He applied to DePauw University located in Greencastle, Indiana. It was a very challenging time for him. In the evenings, he was required to take high-school level classes. This was done so he could be at the same academic level as his fellow students. It was difficult, but Julian graduated first in his class. He was also awarded Phi Beta Kappa honors.
Percy Julian wanted to earn a doctorate in chemistry. Counselors at DePauw told Julian it would be extremely difficult for an African-American to obtain such a degree. This is when Julian decided to get work at Fisk University as a chemistry instructor. He was awarded an Austin Fellowship in Chemistry in 1923. This made it possible for him to study at Harvard University and earn his M.S. Harvard University was concerned its white students would refuse to be taught by an African-American. A teaching assistantship offered by Harvard University was withdrawn. This made it impossible for Julian to finish the work required for his Ph.D. at Harvard.
University of Vienna
In 1929, Percy Julian was an instructor at Howard University. During this year, he was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship. This enabled him to proceed with his graduate work at the University of Vienna in Austria. In 1931, Percy Julian was able to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry. In Europe, Julian enjoyed being free from all the racial prejudices that had held him back in the United States. This was a place where he was welcome at intellectual social gatherings. He attended the opera and experienced much more acceptance among his peers. Percy Julian was one of the first African-Americans to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry.
Confirmed Structural Formula
In 1932, Julian was offered an opportunity to teach organic chemistry at DePauw University. He was able to have his friend, Josef Pikl from the University of Vienna, travel to the United States and work with him. The team of Pikl and Julian were able to confirm the structural formula associated with the total synthesis of physostigmine. A man from Oxford University in the United Kingdom had initially published a paper covering this synthesis. After reading the paper, Julian saw the end product in Robinson's paper was wrong. Julian completed his version of the synthesis. The melting point Julian reached correctly matched the natural physostigmine.
Private Sector Employment
Percy Julian was denied a professorship at DePauw University in 1936 because of his race. DuPont was a company that hired Julian's friend Josef Pikl. They apologized after hiring Pikl and not hiring Julian. They said they didn't know he was an African-American. Julian then applied for employment at the Institute of Paper Chemistry (IPC). It was a company located in Appleton Wisconsin. African-Americans were forbidden from staying overnight in the town where the company was located. During this time, Julian contacted the Glidden Company for a sample of their soybean oil for his work on the synthesis of human steroidal sex hormones. The vice president of Glidden contacted Julian and offered him a job. Julian had the education and experience they wanted but most of all, he was fluent in German. Glidden had recently purchased a plant in Germany. In 1936, Julian worked as a supervisor for the assembly of Glidden's plant. During this time, he was also able to design and supervise the construction of the world's first plant made to produce isolated soy protein from soybean meal.
In 1940, Julian began his research focused on synthesizing steroids from plant sterols. It involved them using a foam technique to isolate it from soybean oil. It is a technique invented and patented by Percy Julian. This process made it possible to convert commercial quantities of progesterone, a female hormone. This was a way that significantly decreased the costs associated with treating a person's hormonal deficiencies. Percy Julian is credited with saving many lives with the development of this technique. An improvement for the process of producing cortisone was announced by Julian in 1949. He was able to use synthesized soybean oil in the creation of the steroid cortisone.
Julian Laboratories, Inc.
Percy Julian left Glidden in 1953 after having worked there for 18 years. His goal was to start Julian Laboratories, Inc. Julian was able to hire many of the best chemists from Glidden to work for his company. This included several women and African-Americans. A short time after starting the company, he was able to secure a contract with the company Upjohn worth $2 million. He planned to use Mexican yams but could not get a permit to harvest them. Julian and representatives from other American companies appeared before a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate. They explained how the company Syntex used undue influence to control access to purchasing Mexican yams. The company agreed to stop its restraint of trade practices. The chemists working for Percy Julian discovered a way to significantly increase their steroid product from the Mexican yams. In 1961, Julian sold his company at a significant profit.
National Academy of Sciences
In 1973, Percy Julian was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. It was done in recognition of his major contributions to the chemical industry. He was a pioneer who made the large-scale manufacturing process for the synthesis of plant sterols for human hormones and steroids possible. Julian's work led to various drugs that helped in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, glaucoma, and many other diseases. His process made this type of medication more affordable to a majority of the population.
On April 19, 1975, Percy Lavon Julian passed away from complications associated with cancer. He was 76-years-old. Julian was buried in Illinois at Elm Lawn Cemetery.
A Nova documentary about the life of Percy Julian was broadcast on PBS on February 6, 2007. It was called Forgotten Genius. Over 59 friends, work associates, as well as family members, were interviewed for the documentary.
Science History Institute
American Chemical Society (ACS)
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