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Percy Julian used chemistry to make life better for all

by Ezekiel J. Walker
Percy Julian used chemistry to make life better for all
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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.

Graduation Photo, Percy Lavon Julian. Courtesy DePauw University Archives

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.  

Among the many Julian artifacts turned up during our research was this handwritten page of notes on the progesterone process, scribbled by Percy Julian in the late 1950s.

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.  

© 1952, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

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, Illnois.

Julian’s life was the subject of a documentary film made for PBS’s Nova series, entitled Forgotten Genius.

2 comments

Ted Lapis October 25, 2022 - 2:33 pm

Thank you! Very informative.

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mebkins November 21, 2022 - 1:25 pm

This information is fake.

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