Percy Lavon Julian was the embodiment of persistence. Julian was an American research chemist and a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants. He was the first to synthesize the natural product physostigmine, plus a pioneer in the industrial large-scale chemical synthesis of the human hormones progesterone and testosterone from plant sterols such as stigmasterol and sitosterol. His work laid the foundation for the steroid drug industry’s production of cortisone, other corticosteroids, and birth control pills.
Julian attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, when the college and town were segregated, graduating in 1920 as a Phi Beta Kappa and valedictorian. He attended Harvard University and obtained an M.S. in chemistry, but the school withdrew his teaching assistantship, preventing him from completing a Ph.D. there. Later while teaching at Howard University, Julian received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to continue his graduate work at the University of Vienna, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1931.
Returning to a teaching position at Howard University, Julian became embroiled in university politics and a personal scandal that forced him to resign. He accepted a position at DePauw University where he completed the synthesis of physostigmine, a drug for treating glaucoma. He left DePauw in 1936 when he was denied a professorship because he was African-American. After being denied jobs with DuPont and the Institute of Paper Chemistry, Julian was offered a position of director of research at Glidden’s Soya Products Division in Chicago.
In 1950, Julian moved into Oak Park, a Chicago suburb, the first African-American family to do so, but not before his new home was fire-bombed! Later his home was attacked with dynamite. Soon after these incidents the community rallied behind them.
Julian’s work yielded over 100 patents and he work includes synthesis of cortisone, producing hormones including progesterone, steroids, vitamins, amino acids and other chemicals mostly from soybean extracts.
The PBS series Nova produced a docudrama about Percy Julian called the Forgotten Genius. In the film, historian James Anderson says “His story is a story of great accomplishment, of heroic efforts and overcoming tremendous odds…a story about who we are and what we stand for and the challenges that have been there and the challenges that are still with us.”