"I don't think that you can possibly embrace the kind of joy which one who has worked with plants and plant structures such as I have over a period of nearly 40 years, how wonderful the plant laboratory seems."
― Percy Lavon Julian
About Percy Lavon Julian
You may not have heard of Percy Lavon Julian, but chances are you’ve used a product his groundbreaking research was responsible for. Julian was a twentieth-century research chemist whose work in chemical synthesis laid the groundwork for synthesizing estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone used to treat those with hormone deficiencies. He also developed process improvements in the production of cortisone, used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, and corticosteroids used to treat various illnesses.
Despite his substantial accomplishments, Julian faced considerable racism throughout his career. Born in 1899 to a postal worker, James Julian, and a schoolteacher, Elizabeth Adams in Montgomery, Alabama, the younger Julian and his five siblings were steered toward education at a young age. However, upon attending DePauw University in Indiana, Julian could not live in the dormitory at his own college due to segregation. In fact, it took days for him to find a place to eat. Nevertheless, he graduated from the university in 1920 as its valedictorian.
After graduating from DePauw, Julian wanted to obtain his doctorate in chemistry, but learned it would be difficult for an African American to do so. Instead, he obtained a position as a chemistry instructor at Fisk University. In 1923 he received an Austin Fellowship in Chemistry, which allowed him to attend Harvard University to obtain his M.S. However, worried that white students would resent being taught by an African American, Harvard withdrew Julian's teaching assistantship, making it impossible for him to complete his Ph.D. there.
He eventually completed his doctorate from the University of Vienna. He taught for a year at Howard University, then married Anna Roselle, with whom he would have children. He worked at DePauw University as an instructor but was denied a professorship given his race. He then sought a role in the private sector but was turned down from DuPont before landing at the Glidden Company, where he began working on the isolation of soy protein for commercial use. His careful work doing so resulted in a compound that could be successfully used to fight fires, which was quickly applied by the U.S. military during World War II.
At Glidden, Julian began working on hormone synthesis and steroid development in 1940. However, despite Julian’s advancements, Glidden was unable to use them to make a profit. Despite his success, Julian still faced discrimination. He moved his family to Oak Park in 1950, and shortly after that, his home was firebombed on Thanksgiving Day. A year later, dynamite was planted at the house. However, much of the nearly all-white community galvanized behind the Julian family. Glidden left the steroid business in 1953, leaving Julian to develop his own laboratory. He continually improved steroid production methods. However, a consortium of large pharmaceutical companies retained control over the market, and he too was unable to profit.
Julian remained at Glidden until 1954, when he founded his own company, Julian Laboratories of Franklin Park, Illinois, and Mexico City (which he eventually sold to Smith, Kline and French). Throughout his life he was socially active in groups seeking to advance conditions for African Americans, helping to found the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of Chicago and serving on the boards of several other organizations and universities.
By the time of his passing in 1975, Julian had become the first African-American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences and had received more than 130 chemical patents. His applied research is still widely used today.