Percy Lavon Julian, the grandson of slaves, developed many useful products from soybeans, including cortisone. He was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on April 11, 1899. His father, James Sumner Julian, was a railway clerk, and his mother, Elizabeth Lena (Adams) Julian, a schoolteacher.
Julian attended public schools in Montgomery. After he was admitted to DePauw University, his family moved with him to Greencastle, Indiana, to enable them to give him their full support. At DePauw his interest in science evolved into a desire to become a research organic chemist. Julian graduated at the top of his class with a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1920. He was class valedictorian and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.
Julian taught organic chemistry for two years at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He then, with the help of Professor William M. Blanchard at DePauw, obtained a graduate research fellowship at Harvard University. He earned a master's degree there in one year, again finishing at the top of his class. He remained at Harvard three more years, as a research assistant, supporting himself with minor fellowship positions and odd jobs outside the university. His application for a teaching assistantship at Harvard was repeatedly rejected on the grounds that the students would not respect a "Negro" instructor.
In 1926 Julian joined the faculty of the West Virginia School for Negroes (later West Virginia State College) at Institute, West Virginia. A year later he became an associate professor of chemistry at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he quickly rose to the positions of full professor and department head.
Julian had become interested in the chemistry of natural substances and was very eager to do original research in that field. Frustrated in his efforts to pursue doctoral studies in the United States, he obtained a fellowship for graduate study at the University of Vienna, Austria, where he worked and studied indole alkaloids under the tutelage of Professor Ernst Spaeth. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Vienna in 1931.
Upon Julian's return to the United States, DePauw University offered him a faculty position and research support. His first project was the total synthesis of physostigmine , an indole alkaloid extracted from the Calabar bean, used in the treatment of glaucoma. Sir Robert Robinson at Oxford University in England was also working on this synthesis. Julian achieved the synthesis of physostigmine, and showed that Robinson's hypotheses about its structure were wrong.
Having also found stigmasterol among the substances in the Calabar bean, Julian directed his research efforts toward using this sterol as the starting point for the synthesis of the sex hormones. Because stigmasterol is readily available from soybean oil, Julian wrote to the Glidden Company, a major manufacturer of soybean oil products, to request a 5-gallon sample of the oil to use as his starting point. The request elicited a telephone call from Glidden, offering Julian the position of director of research of Glidden's Soya Products Division in Chicago.
Julian worked for Glidden for seventeen years, developing several new products from soybeans. He mapped out commercially viable syntheses of progesterone , testosterone, and cortisone from soya sterols. From soya protein he developed "Aero-Foam," a fire extinguishing foam for oil and gasoline fires, which saw use by the U.S. armed forces during World War II.
In 1953 Julian resigned from Glidden to establish his own laboratory in Franklin Park, Illinois. As director of the Julian Research Institute and president of Julian Associates, Inc., he continued work on steroid chemistry and returned to his studies of indole alkaloids. In 1974 Julian became ill, and it was necessary for him to scale back his activities. He died on April 19, 1975.
Julian's scientific work generated about 100 technical papers and more than 200 patents. He received nineteen honorary degrees, was a trustee at six colleges and universities, and was active in the Chicago Urban League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Mental Health Association of Greater Chicago.
The man who had stoked furnaces to support himself at Harvard was the first African American to serve as a faculty member of a non-Negro college and to achieve a supervisory research position within a major American corporation. When, in 1950, Julian became the first African American to purchase a home in all-white Oak Park, Illinois, he and his family became the objects of racist threats and even attacks. As in his professional career, Julian stood firm, and won the respect of his new neighbors.
Julian attributed his success in life and in his professional career to the motivation he received from his father, who taught him that he should not be satisfied with being merely good, when he had the ability to be the very best.
SEE ALSO Cortisone ; .
Lyman R. Caswell
de Kruif, Paul (1946). "The Man Who Wouldn't Give Up." Reader's Digest 50 (August):113–118.
Guzman, J. P., ed. (1947). Negro Year Book: A Review of Events Affecting Negro Life, 1941–1946. Tuskegee, AL: Tuskegee Institute, pp. 39–40.
Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries. "Percy Julian 1899–1975." Available from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/bmjuli.html .
Witkop, Bernhard. National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs. "Percy Lavon Julian." Available from http://www.nap.edu/html/biomems/pjulian.html .