Percy Julian (1899 – 1975)
This is another repeat from last year, but his contributions are so important they bear repeating. Percy Julian’s story brings to mind the question, “How farther along would we be, or what has the world lost in the way of knowledge and invention because some child who held a future cure or discovery was kept from reaching his/her full potential?” It is a strange and painful feeling (disconcerting?) to read about someone who has the ability and temperament to advance in a field but is told not to try – because of other folks’ issues. What he eventually was able to give to the world benefits all humankind – including those folks who set fire to his house.
Percy Julian was born April 11, 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama. He attended elementary school in Birmingham and moved back to Montgomery, Alabama where he attended high school at the State Normal School for Negroes. Upon graduation in 1916, Julian applied to and was accepted into DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. At DePauw, he began as a probationary student, having to take higher level high school classes along with his freshman and sophomore course load. He proved himself well, going on to be named a member of the Sigma Xi honorary society as well as a Phi Beta Kappa member. Finally, upon graduation from DePauw in 1920, he was selected as the class valedictorian. Although he graduated at the top of his class, he was discouraged from seeking admission into graduate school because of potential racial sentiment on the part of his future coworkers and employers. Instead, he took the advice of an advisor and took a position as a chemistry teacher at Fisk University, a Black college in Nashville, Tennessee.
After two years at Fisk, Julian was awarded the Austin Fellowship in Chemistry and moved to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Finally given an opportunity at graduate level work, Julian excelled. He achieved straight A’s, finishing at the top of his class and received a Masters Degree in 1923. Even with this success, Julian was unable to obtain a position as a teaching assistant at any major universities because of the perception that White students would refuse to learn under a Black instructor. Thus, he moved on to a teaching position at West Virginia State College for Negroes. He left West Virginia and served as an associate professor of chemistry at Howard University in Washington, D.C. for two years.
In late 1935, Percy Julian decided to leave the world of academics and entered the corporate world by accepting a position with the Glidden Company as chief chemist and the Director of the Soya Product Division. This was a significant development as he was the first Black scientist hired for such a position and would pave the way for other Blacks in the future. The Glidden Company was a leading manufacturer of paint and varnish and was counting on Julian to develop compounds from soy-based products which could be used to make paints and other products. Julian did not disappoint, coming up with products such as aero-foam which worked as a flame retardant and was used by the United States Navy and saved the lives of countless sailors during World War II.
Percy continued his success as he next developed a way to inexpensively develop male and female hormones from soy beans. These hormones would help to prevent miscarriages in pregnant women and would be used to fight cancer and other ailments. He next set out to provide a synthetic version of cortisone, a product which greatly relieved the pain of those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. The real cortisone was extremely expensive and only rich people could afford it. With Julian’s discovery of the soy-based substitute, millions of sufferers around the world found relief at a reasonable price. So significant was his work that in 1950 the City of Chicago named him Chicagoan of the Year. While the honor should have signaled Julian’s acceptance by his white counterparts in his field and community, when he soon after purchased a home for his family in nearby Oak Park, the home was set afire by an arsonist on Thanksgiving Day 1950. A year later, dynamite was thrown from a passing car and exploded outside the bedroom window of Percy’s children. Despite the fact that many residents of the town relied upon his methods to relieve their pains and provide for their safety, some still could not stand to have him as their neighbor simply because he was Black.
In 1954, Julian left the Glidden Company to establish Julian Laboratories which specialized in producing his synthetic cortisone. When he discovered that wild yams in Mexico were even more effective than soya beans for some of his products, he opened the Laboratorios Julian de Mexico in Mexico City, Mexico which cultivated the yams and shipped them to Oak Park for refinement. In 1961 he sold the Oak Park plant to Smith, Kline and French, a giant pharmaceutical company and received a sum of 2.3 million dollars (nearly 16 million dollars today).
Percy Julian received more than 130 chemical patents. He was one of the first African Americans to receive a doctorate in chemistry; was the first African American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences and the second African American scientist inducted (behind David Blackwell) from any field. Percy Julian was an active fundraiser for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for their project to sue to enforce civil rights legislation. Julian died on April 19, 1975 in Waukegan, IL.
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