African-American chemist Percy Julian was a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs such as cortisone, steroids, and birth control pills.
Born in Alabama in 1899, pioneering chemist Percy Julian was not allowed to attend high school but went on to earn his Ph.D. His research at academic and corporate institutions led to the chemical synthesis of drugs to treat glaucoma and arthritis, and although his race presented challenges at every turn, he is regarded as one of the most influential chemists in American history.
Percy Lavon Julian was born April 11, 1899, in Montgomery, Alabama, the grandson of former slaves. He attended school through the eighth grade but there were no high schools open to black students. He applied to DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where he had to take high school-level classes in the evening to get him up to the academic level of his peers. In spite of this challenging beginning, he graduated first in his class, with Phi Beta Kappa honors.
After college, Julian accepted a position as a chemistry instructor at Fisk University. He left in 1923 when he received a scholarship to attend Harvard University to finish his master’s degree, though the university would not allow him to pursue his doctorate. He traveled for several years, teaching at black colleges, before obtaining his Ph.D. at the University of Vienna in Austria in 1931.
With his doctorate in hand, he returned to DePauw to continue his research. In 1935 he earned international acclaim by synthesizing physostigmine from the calabar bean to create a drug treatment for glaucoma, but in spite of his success, the university refused to make him a full professor because of his race.
Desiring to leave academia, Julian applied for jobs at prominent chemical companies but was repeatedly rejected when hiring managers discovered that he was black. Ultimately, he obtained a position at Glidden Company as the lab director. There he invented Aero-Foam, a product that uses soy protein to put out oil and gas fires and was widely used in World War II, as well as other soybean-based inventions.
Julian continued his biomedical work as well and discovered how to extract sterols from soybean oil and synthesize the hormones progesterone and testosterone. He was also lauded for his synthesis of cortisone, which became used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.
Julian left Glidden in 1953 and established his own laboratory, Julian Laboratories, in 1954. He sold the company in 1961, becoming one of the first black millionaires, before founding Julian Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that he ran for the rest of his life.
He died of liver cancer on April 19, 1975.
Julian was the first black chemist elected to the National Academy of the Sciences, in 1973. In 1990 he was elected to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and in 1999 his synthesis of physostigmine was recognized by the American Chemical Society as “one of the top 25 achievements in the history of American chemistry.”
Julian met his wife, Anna Roselle, while employed at Howard University, and the two were accused of having an affair while she was married to one of his colleagues. A scandal ensued and Julian was fired, but he and Anna married in 1935 and had two children.
“The right of a people to live where they want to, without fear, is more important than my science.” – Percy Julian
In 1950, Julian and his family moved to Oak Park, Illinois. After they purchased their home but before they moved in, the house was firebombed on Thanksgiving Day. It was attacked again in June 1951.
Julian’s life was the subject of a documentary film made for PBS’s Nova series, entitled Forgotten Genius.