HAS ANY AMERICAN, professionally and personally, ever more greatly embodied the concept of “better living through chemistry”?
Julian’s work with alkaloids and steroids would transform medical care, as he used such natural substances as soy protein and the calabar bean to help create and improve treatments for glaucoma and rheumatoid arthritis. His findings and products would also contribute to the development of medical birth control and ways to suppress the immune system — so crucial to organ transplants.
To understand the path of Percy Julian is to comprehend not only the Jim Crow South of his lifetime, but also the Academic/Industrial Prejudice Most Everywhere in his era.
Percy Lavon Julian was born on this day in 1899, in Montgomery, Ala., at a time and place when the state did not educate African Americans beyond the eighth grade. So when Julian got admitted to DePauw University as a “sub-freshman,” it was not just a journey of Alabama to Indiana; there to see him off at the station was his grandfather, a former slave, who waved farewell with three fingers on one hand — the other two had been cut off when he was caught learning to read and write.
Percy Julian would not only catch up with his classmates academically at DePauw, but also finish at the top of the class.
Julian attended Harvard for his master’s, but would have to go overseas, to the University of Vienna, to receive his doctorate in 1931 — one of the first African Americans to get his Ph.D in chemistry. He would become a professor and chemistry department chair at Howard University before resigning and returning to DePauw.
In 1935, Julian won international plaudits for his synthesis of physostigmine from the African calabar bean as a treatment for glaucoma — a scientific milestone. It was that very same year that DuPont adopted its ad slogan, “Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry.” Yet in a prejudicial twist, after DuPont invited Julian and Austrian colleague Joseph Pikl in for job interviews in the wake of their milestone, only Pikl was offered a position; Julian was told: “We didn’t know you were a Negro.”
That chapter is relayed in the NOVA show about Julian, “Forgotten Genius.”
Undeterred, Julian was hired as lab director at Glidden, the paint company, where he discovered that soy sterol could be used to make the hormones progesterone and testosterone — helping to lay the groundwork for steroid research. And he would run his own successful business, Julian Laboratories, becoming a self-made millionaire and especially fostering the next-wave careers of numerous black chemists.
And more personally, Julian would go from receiving death threats and enduring attempted arson after he moved into the white Chicago-area community of Oak Park in 1951, to being named “Chicagoan of the Year” by the Sun-Times. Today, Oak Park has a Percy Julian Middle School.
By the time he died in 1975, Julian — having traveled so far from turn-of-the-century Montgomery — had more than a dozen honorary degrees and more than 100 patents. He became the first African American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences.
Today, Google salutes Julian with a multi-inset Doodle on the 115th anniversary of the birth of the pioneering chemist and inventor.
Happy birthday, Professor Julian