A Formula for Greatness

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Sunday, February 4, 2007

If you've ever taken birth control pills or used cortisone to alleviate arthritis pains, you're already familiar with his achievements. But the solutions Percy Julian discovered in the chemistry lab pale in comparison to those he had to devise for survival as a black man living in a segregated society.

In a two-hour "Lives in Science" biography, Nova explores the life of a "Forgotten Genius" who became a re-nowned research chemist and a lesser known civil rights pioneer. The dramatized documentary details how the grandson of Alabama slaves transformed himself into a millionaire, and the obstacles he faced along the way -- including threats of arson and firebombs at his home.

"In some ways, he is a powerful paradox," said Llewellyn M. Smith, the film's director. "He wanted to do something great for his country, but at the same time, it is a country that doesn't recognize him as an equal person."

One of the most important aspects of Julian's story, Smith said, is the underlying issue of the power of education.

"He was struggling to get a PhD at a time when most African Americans were seen as not in need of this kind of education," Smith said. "It's a story of how critical and important an education can be."

Julian taught at Howard University as well as at his undergraduate alma mater, DePauw University, in the 1920s and '30s. But despite his academic credentials, Julian had to fight just to get his foot in the door at most laboratories.

Eventually, he became a director of an industrial chemistry research lab. Additionally, his work with soybeans helped produce a wide range of products, including paints and plastics. He synthesized a drug for the treatment of glaucoma as well as a cortisone for rheumatoid arthritis.

In 1973, Julian became one of the first black scientists to be elected into the National Academy of Sciences. By his death in 1975 at age 76, Julian held more than 100 patents.

Actor Courtney B. Vance ("Law & Order: Criminal Intent") narrates the biography, and Tony Award-winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson reenacts Julian's life.

-- Sara Boyd

FORGOTTEN GENIUS

Tuesday

8 p.m.

PBS


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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