How Percy Lavon Julian Became a Revolutionary Chemist

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How Percy Lavon Julian Became a Revolutionary Chemist

Inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) in 1990, chemist Percy Lavon Julian is considered one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century for discovering a way to synthesize cortisone from soybeans for use in treating rheumatoid arthritis.

Despite experiencing barriers rooted in racism and prejudice, Julian helped improve the lives of people around the world.

 

Early Life

Born in Montgomery, Alabama, on April 11, 1899, Julian, whose grandparents had formerly been enslaved, was no stranger to the racist policies that were prevalent during these times. His parents, James Sumner Julian, a railroad mail clerk, and Elizabeth Lena Adams, a schoolteacher, strongly believed in the importance of education, and young Percy quickly adopted this stance.

He attended school through the eighth grade, and because no high schools in the area were open to Black students, he moved to Birmingham where his only option was to attend a teacher training school for Blacks.

Despite only having a 10th-grade education, Julian was accepted at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. While he had to take evening classes to make up for his nontraditional high school experience, he soon flourished and went on to be named a member of the Sigma Xi honorary society and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. When he graduated in 1920, he was the class valedictorian.

 

Navigating Adversity

Despite his exemplary college career, Julian was discouraged from attending graduate school due to negative racial sentiments. Instead, he followed the guidance of an adviser and took a chemistry teaching position at Fisk University, a Black college in Nashville, Tennessee. He excelled in this position and was awarded the Austin Fellowship in Chemistry to pursue graduate work at Harvard University, where he became the first Black student to earn a master’s degree in chemistry from the school.

However, Harvard University did not allow Julian to pursue a doctorate, so he spent the next couple of years teaching at Black colleges before earning his doctorate from the University of Vienna.

With his formal education complete, Julian returned to DePauw University as a research fellow and began to specialize in synthesis, the process of transforming one substance into another using planned chemical reactions. In 1935, he and a colleague were able to synthesize physostigmine, a type of plant compound from Calabar beans. This remarkable discovery led to the first-ever effective drug treatment for glaucoma and cemented Julian’s status among the great chemists of his time. However, DePauw denied him a full professor position because of his race.

 

A Lasting Legacy

Julian left academia to become the director of research at the Glidden Co., a leading manufacturer of paint and varnish. It was here that he developed a process for preparing and isolating soybean protein, which could be used to coat and size paper, create cold water paints and size textiles. Additionally, Julian was able to use a soy protein to produce “AeroFoam,” a flame retardant material that was used by the U.S. Navy and saved countless sailors’ lives during World War II.

Further research into soybean synthesis led to the discovery of how to synthesize the hormones progesterone, testosterone and cortisone. The latter of these became a key ingredient in treating rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.

While he experienced racial prejudice and discrimination throughout his life, today Julian is widely regarded as one of the most important American chemists. In addition to his induction into NIHF, in 1990 the American Chemical Society named his synthesis of physostigmine “one of the top 25 achievements in the history of American chemistry.”

 

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