IF Percy Lavon Julian had needed a publicist, Bernhard Witkop of Chevy Chase would have fit the assignment.
From 1936 when Witkop ran across one of Julian's first scientific articles until today when Julian becomes the 16th American to be honored by the Postal Service in its Black Heritage stamp series, Witkop has been the scientist's "unofficial champion."
That was the label the NIH Record, a National Institutes of Health publication, recently attached to Witkop, an NIH honorary scholar, for his decade-long fight to secure a stamp honoring Julian. The 29-cent commemorative goes on sale Friday at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
The stamp is not the first honor Witkop has secured for Julian. In 1973, after five years of campaigning, he helped Julian win election to the National Academy of Sciences, a rare honor for a private researcher, and in 1981, he secured private funding for a portrait of Julian that hangs at NIH.
Those, however, were easy compared to winning approval of a stamp, Witkop said. "It took a long time, getting all those form letters from the post office that say nothing," he said.
When a stamp was announced for rock legend Elvis Presley last year, Witkop was devastated. He couldn't believe that postal authorities would have allowed an entertainer to slip ahead of the grandson of a slave whose climb to scientific success made him a role model for African Americans.
Julian's work is, of course, less well known than Presley's. The scientist is credited with a string of major scientific discoveries, including the synthesis of physostigmine, a drug used to treat glaucoma; the development of an economical way to extract steriods from soybean oil; and creating ways to produce large quantities of synthetic cortisones at low cost. He synthesized progesterone, a female hormone, and testosterone, a male hormone.
For all his scientific accomplishments, Julian knew the pain of racism, Witkop said. Even after he won his PhD from the University of Vienna in 1931, Julian was greatly disappointed that he could not secure a teaching position at Harvard University. Instead, he spent his early days as a researcher at black universities, including Howard University.
Julian remained in Washington only two years because of what Witkop describes as "some unfortunate intrigue" that forced Julian and a colleague, Joseph Pikl, to move to DePauw University. That intrigue, Witkop explained, was "internecine warfare" in the Howard chemistry department.
Howard's loss proved to be the gain of DePauw and, later, the Glidden Co., for whom Julian did much of his soybean research. He later founded his own company, Julian Laboratories Inc., and won a string of honorary degrees before his death at age 76 in 1975.
Throughout his life, Julian remained optimistic despite the racism that Witkop said he encountered from his birthplace "at the corner of Jeff Davis Avenue and South Oak Street in Montgomery, Ala., the capital in the cradle of the Confederacy." In 1950, when the Julian family moved to Oak Park, Ill., a Chicago suburb, arsonists attempted to bomb their house. The next year it was bombed.
Witkop said Julian never forgot helping the common man. In a biographical sketch Witkop drafted he quoted the pricing advice Julian gave his staff: "Well, let's make it moderate, so that everyone who needs it may get it."
What would Julian think of his stamp?
"He probably would be surprised," said Witkop. "It's a nice stamp."
The stamp, which features a close-up portrait of Julian and a view of him working in a white lab coat, was designed by Higgins Bonds of Teaneck, N.J., who also designed the last two stamps in the Black Heritage series. The stamp was printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in sheets of 50 on its offset-intaglio press. MUCH TO the anger of public officials in North Carolina, postal officials have named Chicago as the first-day city for another stamp. When the 1993 stamp program was announced, officials at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh were delighted that its Madonna by Giovanni Battista was to be this year's traditional Christmas stamp.
But officials recently learned that the first-day ceremony, traditionally held in the city where the painting hangs, has been upstaged by Chicago as part of a postal promotion.
"It's outrageous. There were many, many, many stamp collectors and art patrons in Raleigh waiting for this stamp to be issued at our art museum," Raleigh City Council member Barlow Herget told that city's News & Observer.
Robert Masco, a Chapel Hill, N.C., collector, wrote to the newspaper, urging the public to write Congress and the Postal Service to protest.
"Last year Chicago had 20 stamps that had their first day of issue in that city," he said. "North Carolina has not had 20 such stamps in the last 20 years, so why the Postal Service would make this change is beyond comprehension."
INDIVIDUALS who wish to secure first-day cancellations of the Percy Lavon Julian stamps may either prepare their own envelopes with stamps purchased at their local post office or request postal workers to affix the stamps to their envelopes. Collectors who purchase the stamps separately should mail their envelopes to: Customer-Affixed Envelopes, Percy Julian Stamps, Postmaster, Chicago, IL 60607-9991. Workers will place stamps on up to 50 envelopes at a price of 29 cents per envelope at: Percy Julian Stamps, Postmaster, Chicago, IL 60607-9992. All requests should be postmarked by Feb. 28.
Bill McAllister is a member of The Washington Post national staff.