Friday, February 18, 2011


"Against all odds, African-American chemist Percy Julian became one of the great scientists of the 20th century."

There is a wealth of information about the work of Percy Julian on this PBS website based on the NOVA series that featured Julian's story and work: this PBS website.

Dr. Percy Julian was born in 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama into a family "...that believed absolutely in education." (Source

He was a talented student, but at that time the city provided no public education for black students after eighth grade. He persisted in pursuing his education, however, and was admitted to DePauw University in Indiana as a "sub-freshman," taking remedial classes to make up for the foundational courses denied him in Montgomery's public system. In 1920, he graduated first in his class with Phi Beta Kappa honors.

He became a chemistry instructor at Fisk University, and in 1923 received a fellowship that took him to Harvard to complete his masters degree. Subsequently, he again taught at the university level before traveling to Austria to obtain his PhD in chemistry from the University of Vienna in 1931.

He returned to DePauw to continue his research. His original interest was investigating plant products, especially traditional medicinal plants such as the African calabar bean. In 1935, in collaboration with Josef Pikl, he first synthesized from this plant a chemical called physostigmine, or esserine, which had properties allowing for the treatment of glaucoma by reducing pressure inside the eyeball. This brought him international scientific acclaim, but DePauw would not offer him a professorship.

Perry was interviewed at DuPont and numerous other chemical companies, all of which rejected him once they learned that he was black. He was eventually offered the position of Director of Research at The Glidden Company, a paint manufacturer now part of Imperial Chemical Industries. At Glidden, he was supervising white chemists ten years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line.

He devised methods for using soybean protein to improve water-based paints, and as a central ingredient in the fire retardant Aer-O-Foam. Just as significantly, Perry and his Glidden team discovered that soybean protein could be used to make human hormones. They developed a method for bulk manufacturing of these hormones, which lead to the production of drugs that prevent miscarriage.

He also discovered new and more cost-effective methods for synthesizing cortisone, a drug that relieves the pain of rheumatoid arthritis. In 1948, the Mayo Clinic had announced the discovery of cortisone, but it was difficult to produce. Julian focused his gifts on this challenge, and by October 1949, his team had created a synthetic cortisone substitute, equally effective and much less expensive, since natural cortisone had to be extracted from the adrenal glands of oxen and cost hundreds of dollars per drop, while Julian's synthetic cortisone cost pennies per ounce.

Julian held more than 100 chemical patents, wrote scores of papers describing his work, and received dozens of awards and honorary degrees. He founded The Julian Laboratories, Inc., with labs in the U.S. and Mexico, and worked to hire as many qualified black chemists as possible. (Both laboratories were purchased by Smith Kline French in 1961).

In 1951, Julian and his family moved to Oak Park, Illinois, becoming the first black family to live there. His house was firebombed twice (events that my parents recall and mentioned to me when we were discussing Dr. Julian). But the community was largely supportive of him and a community group was established to defend the family. (Source: The Julian family became "a focal point" for civil rights work in Oak Park. (Source:

Ned Heindel, former president of the American Chemical Society stated:
"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."(Source:

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