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  • Writer's pictureK.E. Berr

Percy Julian

The Chemist Who Defied Odds

Percy Julian was a leading chemist during the 20th century and has been credited with many groundbreaking accomplishments. Among his accomplishments are the processes he discovered that proved useful in the production of certain chemicals and aided in the availability and affordability of many drugs.

Percy Julian, photographed during the 1940s.

Early Life and Education

On April 11, 1899, Percy Lavon Julian was born in the town of Montgomery, Alabama. He would be the oldest of six children. His parents, James Sumner Julian and Lena Julian Adams, were both graduates of the Alabama State Normal School for Negroes (later known as Alabama State University). His mother worked as a teacher and his father was a railway postal clerk. With his father's position working for the government, the family had a slightly higher social status -- at least compared to many other African-American families of the time.

As both of Julian's parents were university graduates, they would encourage a love for knowledge within their children and urged them to pursue their education. Although this would prove difficult for Julian, as schools were still heavily segregated. In fact, there was only one school that offered public education for black children in Montgomery, and it only went as far as the eighth grade. His only option to continue school after that was to attend the Alabama State Normal School. However, it did not offer much in the way of classes. Instead of regular high school courses, it instead offered classes such as blacksmithing and hat-making. Julian's education would come mostly through lessons from his parents and books from his father's library.

In 1916, Julian graduated from the Alabama State Normal School. With the ambition to be a chemist, he applied and was accepted into DePauw University. DePauw is situated in Greencastle, Indiana, then a city with a reputation for its tentative race relations. Julian knew that it would be hard for him to study in the city and that he would be one of very few black students at the university.

Still, Julian hoped that race would not be a factor that influenced his time at the school. Though, he would quickly be proven wrong. Students of colour were not allowed to live in the dormitories, so Julian instead lived in a nearby boarding house. Although, other boarders would refuse to serve him meals, and he did not stay very long. Julian then moved into the attic of a fraternity house, where they would exchange room and board as long as Julian completed odd jobs around the house.

Outside of this, Julian often had to work two jobs just to support himself and afford his education. His jobs varied, often due to the fact that he was regularly fired or refused work due to his race. Most of the time he worked either as a waiter or digging ditches when he could find nothing else.

Julian's classes would present their own problems too. Though Julian was intelligent, he still found himself falling behind the other students. In his first year, he was enrolled as a probationary student or 'sub-freshman', meaning that he had to attend extra classes in order to catch up on what he had missed in high school. So during the day, he would attend his normal classes and in the evenings, he would attend high school-level courses, all while managing his jobs and other work.

Julian wearing a cap and gown.

Despite these struggles, when Julian graduated in 1920, he not only left with a degree in chemistry, but also with the prestigious honours of graduating Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi, and the distinction of Valedictorian.

Further Education and Career

After graduation, Julian was deterred from continuing his education, and many professors tried to convince him not to pursue a career in chemistry. Even his own father tried to convince him not to pursue chemistry. He instead wanted his son to practice medicine or teach; something that would prove that a black man did not have to work for or under anyone. But Julian would insist on continuing and would eventually earn his father's approval.

But Julian's professors were still wary of the young man's ambitions. They would tell him that due to his race, they could not help him in finding a job. They also told him not to attend Graduate School as future professors, classmates and coworkers would be uncomfortable with and intimidated by a black man who was better than them.

Feeling discouraged, Julian decided to take a position as a chemistry instructor at Fink University. It was an entirely African American school, so only black professors were hired and it was one of the few places that would employ Julian. Though, Julian would only stay at Fisk for two years. He left in 1922, when Julian was awarded the Austin Fellowship in Chemistry, allowing him to attend Harvard. There, he studied chemistry and earned his Master's Degree in 1923.

A young Julian poses for a photo in the 1920s.

That same year, Julian earned another fellowship through the Harvard Fellowships for Studies in Biophysics and Organic Chemistry and was able to continue studying at the school. Working alongside his Professor, E.P. Kohler, Julian would investigate conjugated unsaturated systems. However, his fellowship was revoked within weeks when it was felt that white students would refuse to be taught by a black man. Julian was now unable to pursue his doctorate and was unable to find another teaching position.

It was not until 1926 that Julian would be hired by the West Virginia State College, which was another all-black school. There, he worked as a chemistry professor. Over the course of his time working there, the school would become desegregated. Julian saw this as a step forward, as he was always a strong advocate for racial equality. Julian would only work at the college for a year before he left to work as an associate professor of chemistry at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Julian received a fellowship from the General Education Board under the Rockefeller Foundation in 1929. With this, he travelled to Austria to study at the University of Vienna. He likely chose Vienna as he wanted to study under Ernst Späth, who had recently completed research on alkaloids in natural chemicals.

In Vienna, Julian again excelled academically. Not only that, but he also found that there was a change in the way that he was seen as a black man. He was well-regarded by other students and often mingled with the wealthier people of Vienna. While he did face some discrimination, it was far different from what he had faced in America.

This was a great opportunity for Julian, one that he did not intend to waste. Julian learned to speak German fluently, and quickly took to those he met. Among his new friends would be classmate Edwin Mosettig, with whom he was very close. With Mosettig and his family, Julian went to the opera, the ballet, to tennis clubs, skiing in the Rox Mountains, and swimming in the Danube. Unlike his time studying in America, it was not marked with the same financial hardships and discrimination.

Julian studying chemicals in a lab.

Julian's brilliance was also impressive. Even Späth, who was known for being a harsh and critical teacher, was taken aback by Julian. Späth once said of his student, "[Julian is] an extraordinary student, his like I have not seen before in my career as a teacher."

In 1931, Julian finally received his Ph.D. in chemistry. Soon after, he said his goodbyes to his friends and colleagues in Vienna. Along with Josef Pikl, another friend from Vienna, they left Vienna for America in late 1931. Together, they began working at Howard University, where Julian served as the head of the chemistry department.

When a scandal surrounding Julian broke out in 1932, he was forced to resign. Letters he had written while in Vienna were published, which detailed his private life while living there. They also contained his personal opinions on several of his Austrian colleagues, which were not favourable, to say the least. These letters were soon followed by an accusation that he was having an affair with his lab assistant's wife, Anna Roselle Johnson.

William Blanchard, who had previously served as a mentor to Julian, heard of his troubles and reached out to him. With Blanchard's help, Julian returned to Depauw as a research fellow, though this position was only meant to be temporary.

Julian would soon partner with Pikl and several students, and began research into the synthesization of physostigmine within the African Calabar Bean. While Julian was doing his own work on synthesization, famed chemist Sir Robert Robinson had also begun research into the same process. At this point, no one had discovered the process of synthesization and being the one to accomplish such a thing would be groundbreaking.

Unfortunately for Julian, Robinson and his team were the first to publish their research on complete synthesis. However, upon reviewing Robinson's work, Julian noticed a mistake in their research. He took his findings to Pikl and urged his colleague to join him in releasing the findings. Pikl was unsure, though. Robinson was one of the most respected chemists in the world, and if they were wrong it would seem like they had tried to undermine Robinson's works as a way to get back at him. It could ruin both of their careers. Even Kohler, upon hearing of his former student's plans to release the information, wrote an urgent telegram warning him not to. In it, he said; "I pray that you are right. If not, the future may be dark for you."

Julian was certain that he was right though. In 1935, he would release his team's findings. Lucky for him, their research would prove to be right. Julian would earn widespread acclaim and be internationally hailed for his work. The process Julian discovered would later be widely used in the treatment of glaucoma.

It was expected that after this Julian would take a position at DePauw, considering his work had brought the university its own fame. Even the Dean of the University wanted Julian to serve as the chair of the chemistry department. Although, the Board of Trustees would convince the Dean otherwise due to Julian's race.

Julian decided that he could no longer remain at DePauw; more than once now the university had held him back because of his race. Julian would travel to Appleton, Wisconsin to apply for a job, but was denied because of the city's status as a sundown town.

While Julian searched for a new position, he would end up marrying Johnson on Christmas Eve of 1935. Johnson herself was quite accomplished, having been the first black woman to receive a degree in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania.

However, the couple soon found themselves struggling with infertility. Julian decided to conduct his own research into it, with hopes to solve the issue. He would write to the Glidden Company, a paint and varnish manufacturer, asking for a five-gallon sample of soybean oil for research into steroidal sex hormones. In response, they offered him a job. Julian was hired on the spot as a chief chemist and the Director of the Soya Product Division, making him one of the first black scientists to be hired in such a high position.

Julian would move to Chicago to work with the Glidden Company, where he was tasked with developing soy-based products that could be used to make paint. While there, he developed a process that isolated the proteins of a soybean. This made it useful in the creation of cold water paints, as a coating for paper, and for the manufacturing of fabrics and cloths.

Julian checks the tanks where hormone products are made at Glidden, 1947.

But Julian would create more than just paints while working with the company. One day, while working in his labs, he was told about a water leak in a tank of purified soybean oil. The leak resulted in a solid white material gathering at the bottom of the tank. Julian realized that the substance had sterol in it, which had been isolated from the soybean oil. It reminded Julian of a discovery he had made while at DePauw, when he had discovered that the steroid stigmasterol was a byproduct of the process that created the alkaloid physostigmine. Realizing the two processes were similar, Julian was able to take the sterol and synthesize the hormones within them, hormones that included progesterone and testosterone.

By doing this, Julian had created a new process to synthesize these sterols. Before this, scientists had not been able to complete the synthesization process on a large scale, making it time-consuming and expensive for both scientists and patients who needed the drugs. Julian though had made it possible to create them in bulk, and made the process easier, cheaper, and quicker, thereby lowering the costs of certain drugs. As well, the chemicals would be used to make drugs that helped prevent miscarriages and could aid in the treatment of several cancers.

Julian with his family; Percy Jr., Johnson, and Faith

In 1940, Julian and Johnson would have their first child, a son named Percy Lavon Julian Jr. Their second child, named Faith Roselle Julian, would be born four years later in 1944.

Later Career

During the Second World War, Julian would play his own role in the war effort. Using soy protein, Julain invented a foam that could easily put out oil and gas fires. He patented this as 'aero-foam' and the navy quickly had it included on their ships, saving the lives of countless sailors.

For several years after the war, Julian continued his work at Glidden. In 1948, scientists at the Minnesota Mayo Clinic announced that they had discovered that cortisone was successful in treating rheumatoid arthritis. Cortisone is a chemical naturally produced in humans and other animals, but only in very small amounts. To get enough to treat patients would require slaughtering a cow, so obtaining enough to use it to treat arthritis was difficult and expensive and many could not afford the drug.

By October of 1949, Julian and his team had created a synthetic steroid substitute known as 'Substance S'. It had the same properties as natural cortisone but was cheaper, costing only cents instead of hundreds of dollars.

The Julian's home in Oak Park, Illinois, a traditionally white neighbourhood in West Chicago.

Julian had done so much for the world of chemistry that in 1947, the NAACP would present him with the Spingarn Medal, one of the highest honours achievable from the organization. Later, in 1950, he was again honoured for his work by being named Chicagoan of the year by the city. That same year, Julian and his family bought a house in Oak Park, an upscale area of the city that, up until that point, had been a white neighbourhood.

Although, despite Julian's success, it did not mean that he had been able to evade racist sentiments. The night before Thanksgiving of 1950, the Julian home was broken into by vandals. They splashed gasoline in the rooms of the house, then attempted to light it on fire using a fuse that led outside. It was unsuccessful, so they instead tossed a flaming torch through a window. Luckily, at the time the house had been under renovation, so no one was home and the majority of the house was able to be saved.

A police officer shows the damage done to Julian's home by the torch that was thrown through his window on November 22, 1950.

Despite the attack, Julian refused to be scared out of his house. The damage was fixed and the family moved in. But almost as soon as they had, the family began to receive death threats. Some of the threats were so severe that the FBI was alerted. However, it is unclear if there was ever an investigation conducted.

In June of 1951, Julian's father died, and Julian and Johnson left to attend the funeral. On June 12, while Julian and Johnson were away, a stick of dynamite was thrown at the Julian home from a passing car. It landed in a garden outside of their children's bedroom and exploded. No one was injured and the house was not badly damaged, but the family was left shaken after the second attack.

Julian still refused to be scared out of his home, though. He released a statement, saying that he had initially moved to Oak Park to give his children a better life than the one he had had growing up in the south during the time of Jim Crow laws and segregation. He hoped that police would provide the family with protection after this incident, but they refused. Instead, Julian had to hire private guards. No one would be more vigilant than Julian himself, who his son remembered was often stationed under a tree with a shotgun. After that, the house was not attacked again, but the death threats continued. In 1954, one threat warned Julian that if he did not leave the neighbourhood, he would never see his children again. Again, Julian sent the threats to the FBI and he remained on guard.

In 1953, Julian left the Glidden Company and founded his own company, Julian Laboratories in Franklin Park, Illinois. The company specialized in producing synthetic cortisone. Julian soon discovered that wild yams growing in Mexico were more effective than soya beans for certain products. Soon, he opened the Laboratorios Julian de Mexico in Mexico City. For several years, Julian ran the company and quickly became a millionaire. In 1961, he sold the company to Smith, Klive and French for a sum of $2.3 million (roughly $19.7 million in 2019).

Julian talking to kids at an NAACP meeting in 1973.

Later Life

Though Julian could now peacefully and comfortably retire, he instead continued with his other passions. In 1964, Julian founded Julian Associates and the Julian Research Institute, both nonprofit research organizations. Both of these he would manage for nearly ten years.

By 1967, he was a major part off the NAACP and Urban League, and became an advocate for equal educational and professional opportunities for African Americans. He also served as a consultant to several major pharmaceutical companies. At some point, he also returned to Vienna and visited the widow of his former professor. Späth's widow had struggled to support herself after the war and Julian decided to help her out until she could find a way to support herself.

In 1967, Julian became co-chairman of a group of 47 other successful black people enlisted by the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of the NAACP. The group would raise over $1 million to finance lawsuits to enforce civil rights legislation.

Julian at a ceremony at DePauw University.

During the final years of his life, Julian was presented with many awards, as well as being given 19 honourary degrees. He was also given eighteen civic and academic citations. He received the first of DePauws McNaughton Medal for Public Service. Later, he acted as a trustee and served on the boards of five different universities, including Howard, Fisk and Roosevelt. He also served on 29 other boards and was a fellow of the American Chemical Society, American Institute of Chemistry and the New York Academy of Sciences.

In 1972, at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois, a chemistry building was named for Julian. A year later, he was elected as a member of the National Academy of Science.

After a long life of achievements, Julian was diagnosed with liver cancer while in his early 70s. On April 19, 1975, Julian died in Waukegan, Illinois at age 76. He was buried at Elm Lawn Cemetery in Elmhurst, Illinois.

DePauw's bust in Indiana honouring Percy Julian.


When Julian passed away, he left behind a long legacy. Over the course of his life, Julian would author and co-author more than 160 publications. He also held more than 130 chemical patents.

His methods are still widely used in the production of many chemicals and medicines. Not only did he create processes for progesterone, testosterone, and cortisone, but also hydrocortisone and he would be instrumental in the development of chemical birth control and other medicines crucial for organ transplants.

In 1990, Julian was welcomed into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 1993, a stamp was made in his honour. Six years later, Julian's process for synthesizing physostigmine was recognized by the American Chemical Society as one of the top 25 achievements in the history of American Chemistry. That same year, the city of Greencastle renamed their First Street to Percy Julian Drive. On April 13, 1999, DePauw would dedicate a National Historic Chemical Landmark to Julian, placing a bust and plaque on their Indiana campus in his honour.

Without Julian, some of the drugs and chemicals we have today would not exist. He revolutionized the drug industry, making them more affordable and accessible. By doing so, he became a hero, helping countless people.

Not only was he a brilliant chemist, but he also helped people through his work as an activist. By defying people who kept him down based on his race, he also cleared a path for people of colour who followed. Julian was an all-around hero, and that is what he deserves to be remembered as.




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