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by Kathy Crockett

Julian in the lab. (Courtesy of Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio)

Percy L. Julian, a groundbreaking African American chemist, inventor, and leader has the achievements and honors to make it to the top of any list of great African Americans, American scientists, or medical innovators. Yet, somehow, despite the fact that Julian's work surrounds us everyday, he remains largely unknown. The events in Julian's life--and what we take from them--are as varied as the products he had a hand in developing throughout the better half of the 20th century. From the foam that puts out fires and the latex paint on our walls to birth control pills and the steroids used to relieve arthritis pain and allergies, there is no question that Julian's life work has impacted our daily lives. The question that does exist is: why this hero of chemistry, medicine, and Civil Rights is largely forgotten in the canon of scientific researchers and black history?

The theme of Percy Julian's life could be one about outstanding achievements in the face of great obstacles; it could also be one about oppression and missing opportunities; and, still, it could be one offering an example of community service and bravery. He was born Percy Lavon Julian on April 11, 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama. His grandparents had been slaves, and despite the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation was issued more than thirty years prior, the line drawn between blacks and whites was clear, and racial discrimination and inferior treatment could be seen all around, from the "whites only" signs on the water fountains, restaurants, bathrooms, and buses, to the lack of access to libraries and schools for black citizens.

Percy's father was a railroad mail clerk, and his mother was a teacher. They were considered to have very good jobs, as most blacks were employed in the fields or other lower-skilled jobs. They valued education, and encouraged Percy and his siblings to get the educations that they themselves did not have; their children would go to college. But getting into college was not an easy feat. First, high school was not available to blacks; instead students who finished the eighth grade could go to a two-year teachers' school for blacks. Second, science, which young Percy studied with zeal in the family library his father created, was not taught. Third, racial discrimination existed everywhere-even in college admissions offices, where it was widely considered that blacks could not do the college work that whites could.

With a 10th grade education Percy set off for his first year of college at DePauw University, which had accepted a few black students before his admittance. After struggling through his freshman year, taking the remedial courses needed to make up for his lack of high school education, searching a day and a half to find a restaurant that would serve him, and living in the basement of a fraternity house, Percy blossomed. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa, and was now on the search for a school where he could continue his studies in chemistry. Only one African American before him had earned his PhD in chemistry; Julian was determined to be the second.

After many twists and turns, gains and losses, Percy earned his PhD while studying in Vienna, on a fellowship. In Vienna, Julian had the freedom to do his own research, something that would be hard to obtain for much of his career. His research there, as well as the path he followed to get his PhD, would be a familiar theme to his struggles and success in personal and professional life. But he was not daunted by the challenges before him. "In much of my life, I've had to pick up the broken fragments of chance and turn them into opportunity," Julian observed.

When Julian was able to perform his own work in the laboratories, his chemical research produced benefits that we still use today. One of his first innovations offered the hope of sight to people with glaucoma. Julian found a method to isolate and synthetically make a naturally-occurring chemical compound known to treat the sight-robbing eye condition, thereby making the drug more available to those who otherwise would lose their sight.

While Julian was writing his own papers on his discoveries, white scientists were writing papers on their own research that determined that "blacks couldn't do science." Julian's accomplishments could have easily proved them wrong; but, despite his success, few universities would hire him to teach and do his own research. All hope for a higher-profile academic career and funding for research soon vanished. In addition, many commercial laboratories would not hire people of color, and those who did were not likely to let him do his own research.

One company, however, did hire Julian. Glidden, a paint company in Chicago, hired him as the Director of Research, a move that was unprecedented at the time, especially considering that it took place 10 years before Jackie Robinson opened up the doors of opportunity for blacks in baseball and beyond. The 1930's set a stage for chemistry to play a major role in changing the way people lived, growing the economy, and solving medical mysteries. Following a trend, Glidden began looking to extract as many possible products from a newly-hailed resource-the soybean. Soy could be used in a wide variety of products, from dog food to house paint to plastic. The company assigned Julian to extract the protein in the soybean so that it could be made synthetically. He was successful at the assignment, and was also successful in motivating the chemists in his laboratory to do their best and live up to demanding expectations.

He also saw that the research he was performing could do much more than make soy-based paints, margarine and animal feed, and he wanted to direct his work toward medicine. He was particularly interested in steroids and soon found that he could derive them from soybean oil. Glidden allowed him to do the research, and for a few years, the paint company could add artificial hormone production to its list of capabilities. Julian's accomplishments grew; he was earning national acclaim, and yet he was still barred from many conventions for scientists of ability and stature. His scientific research helped to bring about the birth control pill and a man-made version of cortisone, a steroid that was lauded as a miracle drug for patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, a disease so debilitating that its sufferers could barely move before being injected with the steroid.

When Glidden returned the focus of Julian's research to making paint, he left to open his own lab, Julian Laboratories. The company would become a first in many arenas. It made Percy Julian a millionaire--one of the richest black persons in the United States. It found a way to cost-effectively reproduce the compound used in making many medicines--and he passed the savings on to the consumer so that more people would have access to the life-bettering drugs. It also opened the door for other black chemists--Julian Laboratories employed more black chemists than any other facility in the country.

But to get Julian Laboratories started, and keep it going, Julian once again found himself "picking up the pieces of chance" to reconstruct the future of the lab. Throughout the history of the company, Julian faced difficulties that would even make other heroes quit the fight. He still encountered racial discrimination. Banks denied him the loans to start his business because he was black. When he constructed a processing plant for yams (to make his signature "Compound S" used in making steroids) in Mexico, the Mexican government wouldn't give him a permit to harvest them. The plant that Julian had found private investors to build would have stood empty, if Percy didn't find a way to turn the tide of loss. With the help of a friend, whom he had helped years earlier, Julian once again defeated the odds.

In 1961 Julian sold Julian Laboratories to Smith, Kline and French Pharmaceutical Company (now GlaxoSmithKline) for more than two million dollars, and founded Julian Research Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to training young research chemists, where he served as director until his death in 1975. In 1967, he began serving on the Board of Trustees for his alma mater DePauw University and Howard University, honors that followed twenty years after he received the Spingarn Medal Award from the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Other honors followed, with many notable ones occurring just before his death or even decades after, including his 1973 election to the National Academy of Sciences, where he was only the second African-American to receive one of the highest honors in any scientific field; a commemorative stamp issued by the United States Postal Service in 1993; and, in 1999, the American Chemical Society recognized Julian's work the drug to treat glaucoma as one of the top 25 achievements in the history of American chemistry.

Yet, even as a successful and award-winning scientist, a wealthy businessman and community member, Julian still couldn't eat in the restaurant of his choice. Throughout the 1960s the fight for equal rights was becoming stronger, more forceful. Although he was loath to turn to a more aggressive way of gaining respect and equality, he soon found that he could be passive no longer; simply setting an example was not enough to bring about change. And so he moved more of his concentration to fight for civil rights, joining the NAACP and Urban League to help bring equal housing opportunities for blacks.

Julian and his family also came face-to-face with adversity and violent, racist threats and acts. When they moved into an upscale, predominantly white neighborhood in a suburb of Chicago, the family received death threats. Arson attempts were made on the house. Like everywhere else in his life, Julian set an example by standing up for his ideals. He was not intimidated. "To leave would have been cowardly and wrong. The right of a people to live where they want to, without fear, is more important than my science and my life to bring a halt to this senseless terrorism," he believed.

Percy Julian worked through situations that were never ideal, and made the best of them because of his desire to make difference and contribute to the benefit of the larger society, even if it was the one that, ironically, held him back from being a truly great chemist, which in his eyes, he never was. "I had been perhaps a good chemist, but not the chemist I dreamed of being," Julian mused towards the end of his life. He was denied so much because of the color of his skin, and in turn people, even today, were denied the benefits that Julian's research could have brought if the cultural and social climates had been different. Knowing what he did accomplish, and how much stood in his way, it's almost painful to think about what this hero could have been and could have brought to medical, cultural, and academic advancement.

In picking up the pieces of his life's work, this is our opportunity to learn from a hero, one who did not wilt under the circumstances that seemed to confront him at every step he took toward advancing not only his own life, but also the lives of thousands upon thousands of others. Yes, he could very well have become a better--a great--chemist in a different era; but despite this, or rather because of his challenges, I can't imagine a better hero or role model for scientists and citizens of today and into the future.

Written by Kathy Crockett
Last changed on: 8/16/2007

Learn More!
Watch PBS's NOVA documentary on Percy Julian, listen to Julian's speeches, build your own virtual chemical compounds, and more on this section of the PBS website.

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