Listen to this article here
Percy Lavon Julian was born April 11, 1899, in Montgomery, Alabama, as the grandson of former slaves. Yet, as a steroid chemist and an entrepreneur, he would go on to become a world-renowned scientist and one of the first Black millionaires in the US.
Percy Julian ingeniously figured out how to synthesize important medicinal compounds from abundant plant sources, making them more affordable to mass-produce.
Julian attended formal school through the eighth grade, but at the time there were no high schools open to Black students. Despite this, he applied to DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where he had to take high school-level classes in the evening to get him up to the academic level of his peers. Though challenging, Julian still graduated first in his class, with Phi Beta Kappa honors.
After college, Julian accepted a position as a chemistry instructor at Fisk University before leaving in 1923 to attend Harvard University on scholarship to finish his master’s degree in chemistry, though the university would not allow him to pursue his doctorate due to the institutional racism of the times.
After obtaining his master’s degree, Julian was not offered a teaching assistantship. According to Discover Magazine, this was largely because the administration didn’t believe white students would accept him as their teacher. Following a series of research fellowships and teaching positions at predominantly Black universities, he went on to pursue a Ph.D. in Vienna, Austria, in 1931.
While in Vienna, he studied with renowned chemist Ernst Späth, known for his research in the field of alkaloids. Späth was impressed with Julian’s work ethic, musical talent, ability to learn languages, and humor. Späth died penniless in the wake of World War II, and Julian both paid for his funeral and commissioned a bust in his honor.
Relentlessly undeterred and inspired by Späth, Julian later learned to synthesize physostigmine, which became the first medication that proved effective in treating glaucoma. Working as a lab director, he would go on to invent Aero-Foam, a product that uses soy protein to put out oil and gas fires and was widely used in World War II, as well as other soybean-based inventions.
In 1973, Julian became the first Black chemist elected to the National Academy of the Sciences. In 1990, he was elected to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and in 1999 his synthesis of physostigmine was recognized by the American Chemical Society as “one of the top 25 achievements in the history of American chemistry.”
In 1950, Julian was named Chicago’s Man of the Year in a Chicago Sun-Times poll, but his home was bombed and burned when he moved to the all-white suburb of Oak Park. He was active as a fund-raiser for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for their project to sue to enforce civil rights legislation.
In 1961, he sold his company, Julian Laboratories, to pharmaceutical giant, Smith, Kline and French (SKF) for 2.3 million dollars. The sale of Julian Labs made him one of the first Black millionaires in the U.S.
In a 2007 Congressional resolution to honor Julian, many of his civil rights achievements were highlighted, like his involvement with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the founding of the National Negro Business and Professional Committee for the Legal Defense Fund. He was also involved with efforts to further integrative housing, an important cause at a time when there was much resistance to the idea of Black homeowners moving into predominantly white communities.
Julian once said, “I have had one goal in my life, that of playing some role in making life a little easier for the persons who come after me.”
Julian passed on April 19, 1975 at the age of 76 in Waukegan, Illinois.