Percy Lavon Julian
April 11, 1899 – April 19, 1975
Percy Lavon Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama, one of Elizabeth Lena Adams’ and James Sumner Julian’s six children. Julian was the grandson of former slaves and his mother worked as a school teacher while his father earned a living as a railroad mail clerk. Both parents preached the importance of education to their children. Julian did well in school from elementary through the eighth grade but there were no public high schools in the area that accepted Black students.
As an alternative, he enrolled at an all-Black normal school but the education he received left him ill-prepared for college. Fortunately, DePauw University in Indiana accepted him as a sub-freshman. This arrangement allowed Julian to begin his college career while also taking classes at a local high school, filling the gaps in his education. While concurrently studying as a high school and college student, Julian also worked to cover his tuition and other expenses.
Despite his academic workload and other responsibilities, Julian completed his high school requirements by the end of his sophomore year. He thrived in college and became a member of two honor societies. Once lagging behind his peers, by senior year he was first in his class. Julian was selected as valedictorian and completed his bachelor’s degree with honors.
Having chosen chemistry as his undergraduate major, the typical track would have been to attend graduate school. But Julian was discouraged from applying to grad school because of limited job opportunities for him. Instead, he accepted a teaching position at Nashville’s Fisk University. After spending two years at Fisk he won an Austin Fellowship to Harvard University where he obtained a master’s degree in organic chemistry.
Unfortunately, Harvard opted not to allow him to begin work on his doctorate. Once again experiencing difficulties receiving job offers he returned to teaching, this time at West Virginia State College and Howard University. A grant from the Rockefeller Foundation provided an opportunity for him to pursue a doctorate in chemistry. Julian relocated to study the chemistry of medicinal plants at the University of Vienna.
Upon successful completion of his doctorate, Julian returned to America in the company of Josef Pikl, a colleague he had met and befriended in Vienna. They spent two years at Howard during which time Julian met Anna Johnson, the woman who would become his wife. Julian and Pikl next moved to positions at DePauw. As a research fellow, Julian helped guide student research projects. But it was his research collaboration with Pikl that would bring them both international acclaim.
The pair built on their research into creating a synthetic form of physostigmine to treat glaucoma which they’d begun in Vienna. Physostigmine is naturally found in the calabar bean, the seeds of a highly poisonous plant native to West Africa. It had been traditionally fed to people suspected of being witches or possessed, often resulting in death. Physostigmine had first been isolated in 1864 and was used to relieve pressure caused by glaucoma which could damage the retina and result in blindness.
Despite his success and international acclaim, Julian left DePauw when the school declined to make him a full professor because he was Black. As had occurred at other points in his career, applying for positions proved unsuccessful as chemical companies would refuse to hire him once they realized that he was Black. It was around this time that Julian through a chain of events wound up being hired as the Glidden Company’s lab director.
When Julian and Pikl successfully synthesized a complete version of physostigmine in 1935 the process also produced stigmasterol as a by-product. Stigmasterol is a steroid the can be naturally obtained from soybeans and then used to create synthetic cortisone and sex hormones such as progesterone. Julian had contacted the Glidden Company hoping to obtain soybean oil and this indirectly led to him joining the company. In his new role as director of research in the Soya Division, Julian was tasked with developing new products from soybeans.
A few years into his tenure at Glidden, a tank of purified soybean oil was accidentally tainted by water leaking into the tank. The oil solidified and Julian realized that the material created by the mishap was a large quantity of synthesized stigmasterol. The steroid had already been synthesized but labs had been unable to figure out how to produce stigmasterol in large quantities.
With this discovery, Glidden was able to efficiently and cost-effectively convert stigmasterol into synthetic progesterone and testosterone. Those sex hormones play key roles in a variety of the body’s functions including but not limited to reproduction. Julian’s research also allowed for the synthesis of cortisone and hydrocortisone which could be used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Soy protein was also used to develop Aero-foam, a foaming agent used by the US Navy to extinguish oil and gas fires during WWII which is still produced today.
In 1935, Julian had settled with his family in Chicago, Illinois. Recognized by the City of Chicago for his scientific research, Julian was named 1950 Chicagoan of the Year. That same year, Julian purchased a home for his family in Oak Park, a community on the outskirts of Chicago. On Thanksgiving Day the home was firebombed though fortunately, the family had not yet moved in. In June 1951, a stick of dynamite was thrown at the house from a passing car. Julian had worked hard to establish himself and his career, creating products that improved the lives of people dealing with medical conditions. Yet his race resulted in residents of Oak Park attempting to destroy his home, if not harm the man and his family.
After almost two decades at Glidden, Julian left to start his own company, Julian Laboratories which would produce synthetic cortisone. He established a branch in Mexico City, Mexico to cultivate yams after finding that they were more efficient than soybeans. In 1961, Julian sold the company’s American plant to a large pharmaceutical company for $2.3 million. Following the sale, Julian established a nonprofit to which he dedicated the rest of his life.
Percy Lavon Julian died on April 19, 1975, from liver cancer. Despite setbacks and discouragement throughout his career, Julian persevered. By the time of his death, he’d achieved professional and financial success and his work had resulted in inclusion in various halls of fame as well as honorary degrees and awards.
- Biography.com Editors. 2021. “Percy Julian.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. April 16, 2021. https://www.biography.com/scientist/percy-julian.
- “Calabar Bean Uses, Benefits & Dosage.” 2021. Drugs.com. September 21, 2021. https://www.drugs.com/npp/calabar-bean.html.
- “Percy Lavon Julian ’20.” n.d. DePauw University. Accessed January 2, 2022. https://www.depauw.edu/julian/biography/.
- “Percy Lavon Julian.” 1999. American Chemical Society. April 23, 1999. https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/julian.html.
- “Percy Lavon Julian.” 2020. Science History Institute. October 15, 2020. https://www.sciencehistory.org/historical-profile/percy-lavon-julian.
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