Dr. Percy Julian became one of the most influential chemists in American history. Countless people benefited from his work, from patients suffering with rheumatoid arthritis and glaucoma to servicemen whose lives were saved during World War II.
Julian—the grandson of slaves—had to confront numerous challenges in order to have a career in chemistry. His determination and his desire to help others are just as amazing as his achievements in his field.
Julian was DePauw University’s valedictorian in 1920, but at the time no African-American student, no matter how gifted, was expected to pursue higher education. His prospects for pursuing his Ph.D. looked grim, and he accepted a teaching position at Fisk University. Julian eventually found his way to Harvard, where he got his master’s in chemistry in 1923. Unfortunately, Julian encountered racist resistance there as well; denied a teaching assistantship, he still couldn’t pursue his Ph.D.
In 1929, Julian was able to start on his doctorate at the University of Vienna in Austria. In the early 1930s, Julian, along with research partner Josef Pikl, undertook the challenge of synthesizing physostigmine. It was a daring move because one of the world’s most respected chemists, Sir Robert Robinson of Oxford University, was also working towards the same goal.
When Robinson’s researchers reported that they’d succeeded in a complete synthesis of physostigmine, Julian realized that Robinson’s work contained a mistake. Julian’s partner, Pikl, was worried about declaring this publicly, as their careers would be destroyed if Julian turned out to be wrong.
Fortunately for Julian, his own steps for synthesizing the molecule were shown to be correct in 1935. Not only had he achieved a chemical breakthrough, Julian had left a more celebrated chemist in the dust.
Though many companies balked at the idea of engaging a black scientist, he was hired by the Glidden Company in 1936, where he would head research for the Soya Products Division. His work with soybeans led Julian to success after success, and patent after patent.
Among his notable achievements was a key protein for Aero-Foam—nicknamed “bean soup”—a fire retardant that saved many lives. Julian also came up with methods for synthesizing testosterone and progesterone, as well as an affordable way to produce the steroid cortisone (which was in demand as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis).