February is Black History Month in the United States, set aside as a time to recognise achievements by African Americans and to learn about the roles they have played in the country’s history.
Percy Lavon Julian was “a pathbreaking synthetic chemist, a successful industrial research director, and a wealthy businessman”, according to an article the American Chemical Society (ACS) published in 1999 to commemorate the publication of “Percy L. Julian and the Synthesis of Physostigmine”. The ACS calls the booklet a“national historic chemical landmark”.
Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on 11 April 1899. His father’s parents had been slaves.
In order to achieve all that he did in his education and employment, Julian had to overcome crushing racial bigotry. Even after earning recognition for his work – in 1950 he was named “Chicago’s Man of the Year” in a poll by the Sun‐Times newspaper – he received death threats. The house he’d bought in an all‐white suburban neighbourhood was firebombed by what the New York Times called “hoodlums”.
An article published by DePauw University, in Greencastle, Indiana, where Julian received much of his secondary education and performed important research, describes how he graduated from the school in 1920 with a BA degree and as the highest-ranked student of his class.
Despite his academic success, however, he was not offered a place in a graduate program, so he took a position teaching chemistry at Fisk University, an all-Black school in Nashville, Tennessee.
After two years at Fisk, the DePauw article says, he won a fellowship to Harvard University, earning a master’s degree in 1923. But again, “despite his strong academic and research record, no job offer was forthcoming, other than from Black institutions. Julian taught at West Virginia State College and Howard University, where he was appointed head of the chemistry department.”
In 1929, stymied in his pursuit of doctoral studies in the US, he received a Rockefeller Foundation grant to study in Austria, at the University of Vienna, where he earned a doctorate in 1931.
In 1933 he returned to DePauw. The ACS article says that as a research fellow from 1932 to 1935, Julian, working with his colleague from Vienna, Josef Pikl, and several DePauw students, “produced a phenomenal number of high-quality research papers”.
In 1935, it says, he first synthesised the drug physostigmine, “previously only available from its natural source, the Calabar bean. His pioneering research led to the process that made physostigmine readily available for the treatment of glaucoma. It was the first of Julian’s lifetime of achievements in the chemical synthesis of commercially important natural products.”
The ACS says that “publication of this work established Julian’s reputation as a world-renowned chemist at the age of 36”.
Despite this success, Julian wasn’t offered a teaching position at DePauw and so he turned to industry. In 1936 he went to work for the Glidden Company, a prominent maker of paints and varnishes, as assistant director of research in the soya products division, where he spent 18 years and, according to the DePauw University article, “built a great research facility”.
Among the patents and successful products he produced for Glidden were a commercial process for isolating and preparing soya bean protein, which could be used to coat and size paper, to create cold-water paints and to size textiles.
During World War II, he helped develop Aero-Foam, a hydrolyzate of isolated soy protein that was used by the US Navy to smother oil and gasoline fires on aircraft carriers.
He synthesised the female and male hormones progesterone and testosterone, by extracting sterols from soybean oil, and his research “made it possible to synthetically produce large quantities of cortisone for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions. His synthesis of cortisone reduced the price from hundreds of dollars per drop for natural cortisone to a few cents per gram.”
In 1953 he left Glidden and founded Julian Laboratories. He later established the non-profit Julian Research Institute, where he worked until his death from liver cancer on 19 April 1975.
Originally published by Cosmos as Percy Julian makes history
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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