InventorsScience - Technology

Percy Julian

Percy Julian was a remarkable chemist and entrepreneur who made significant contributions to the field of chemistry during his lifetime. He was a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs and played a major role in the development of many important medications.

Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1899, and grew up in a segregated society. Despite facing discrimination and limited opportunities because of his race, he excelled in school and went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from DePauw University in 1920. After graduation, he taught at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee for a short time before earning a fellowship to study at Harvard University.

Chemist Percy Lavon Julian working in his lab.

In 1929, Julian was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to study in Switzerland, where he earned his Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Vienna in 1931. He returned to the United States and worked as a research chemist for several companies before joining the Glidden Company in 1936.

At Glidden, Julian worked on the development of various chemical products, including paint and solvents. However, his most significant contribution was the synthesis of the hormone progesterone from abundant plant material. This was a major breakthrough, as previously the hormone had been extracted from the ovaries of animals, making it expensive and difficult to obtain. Julian’s method for synthesizing progesterone from plants made the hormone widely available and paved the way for the development of birth control pills.

A snapshot from May 1950 features Percy Julian with his wife Anna Johnson Julian and their children, Faith and Percy Jr.

Julian’s other major contribution to science was the synthesis of cortisone, a hormone used to treat arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. Cortisone was previously obtained from animal sources, making it expensive and difficult to obtain. Julian’s method for synthesizing cortisone from plant material made the hormone more widely available and revolutionized the treatment of arthritis.

In addition to his scientific contributions, Julian was also a successful entrepreneur. He founded his own chemical company, Julian Laboratories, in 1954 and built it into a successful business. The company was later acquired by Smith Kline Corporation, and Julian became the first African American to serve as a director of a major American corporation.

Percy Julian (center) and DePauw University faculty and staff discuss a model of the university’s Science and Mathematics Center circa 1967. Julian gave keynote remarks at the building’s opening ceremony in 1972. It was renamed the Percy L. Julian Science and Mathematics Center in 1980 and was expanded and rededicated in 2003.

Despite facing racism and discrimination throughout his life, Percy Julian persisted and made groundbreaking contributions to science and society. He received numerous awards and honors during his lifetime, including the National Medal of Science in 1973, and his work continues to benefit people all over the world today.

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