Percy Lavon Julian

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Percy Lavon Julian 18991975


At a Glance

Determined to Succeed in the Face of Racism

A Groundbreaking Achievement

Produced Synthetic Cortisone from Soybeans

Established His Own Pharmaceutical Company


Known as the soybean chemist for his extraordinary success in synthesizing innovative drugs and industrial chemicals from natural soya products, Percy Lavon Julian was an internationally acclaimed scientist whose discoveries earned him more than 130 chemical patents and a host of professional awards. Among his most important contributions were the creation of a synthetic version of cortisone, a drug used to relieve the pain and inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis, and physostigmine, prescribed to alleviate the effects of glaucomaa disease of the eye that can cause blindness if left untreated. Julians work with soybeans and soya derivatives also led to the mass production of the male and female hormones testosterone and progesterone and the development of a powerful firefighting chemical called Aero-Foam, used by the U.S. Navy during World War II. The first African American to direct a modern industrial laboratory, he spent 17 years with the Glidden Company in Chicago before leaving to establish his own successful pharmaceutical enterprise, Julian Laboratories, Inc.

In addition to his groundbreaking work in the field of organic chemistry, Julian was a leader in the fight for civil rights. A strong supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in 1967 he joined a group of 46 other black businesspeople in raising money to enforce civil rights legislation through the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Despite his personal and professional success, Julians own encounters with racismfrom the college professors who refused to offer him a teaching assistantship to the hoodlums who firebombed his suburban homewere never far from his mind.

The eldest of six children, Percy Lavon Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1899. His father, James, who worked as a railway mail clerk, was the son of former slaves who went on to purchase their own small farm. According to Percys younger brother, Emerson, James Julian was a strict disciplinarian who had high expectations for his children. All six would later earn advanced degrees. One day, Emerson recalled, Percy rushed home from elementary school expecting to be congratulated for having received a score of 80 on an arithmetic exam. Instead of praising him, the elder Julian responded with disappointment, stating that anything less than 100 percent would never do. Julian took his fathers advice seriously and went on to graduate at the top of his class from the State Normal School for Negroes. He then entered Indianas DePauw University with the hope of studying organic chemistry. There he excelled in both his studies and

At a Glance

Born April 11, 1899, in Montgomery, AL; died of cancer, 1975; son of James S. (a railway mail clerk) and Elizabeth Lena (Adams) Julian; married Anna Johnson (a sociologist), December 24, 1935; children: Percy Lavon, Jr., Faith Roselle, Rhoderic Education: DePauw University, B.A, 1920; Harvard University, M.A., 1923; University of Vienna, Ph.D., 1931.

Chemistry instructor, Fisk University, 1920-22; Harvard University, research assistant in chemistry, 1925-26; professor of chemistry, West Virginia State College for Negroes, 1926-27; Howard University, associate professor and acting head of chemistry department, 1927-29, professor and department head, 1931-32; research fellow and teacher of organic chemistry, DePauw University, 1932-36; Glidden Company, Chicago, director of research, soya-products division, 1936-45, research director and manager of fine chemicals development, 1945-53; president, Julian Laboratories, Inc. and Laboratorios Julian de Mexico, 1953-64; president, Julian Associates, and director, Julian Research Institute, 1964-75. Head of Council for Social Action of the Congregational Christian Churches, 1956; special consultant, National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases; member of board, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

Member: Phi Beta Kappa; National Academy of Science; fellow, Chemical Society of London, New York Academy of Science, and American Institute of Chemists.

Selected awards: Spingarn Medal, NAACP, 1947; Chicagoan of the Year, Chicago Sun-Times, 1950; Silver Plaque Award, National Conference of Christians and Jews, 1965; Chemical Pioneer Award, American Institute of Chemists, 1968; Procter Prize, 1974; inducted into National Inventors Hall of Fame, 1990; commemorative stamp issued by U.S. Postal Service, 1993.

extracurricular activities and in 1920 was named valedictorian of his graduating class.

He soon discovered, though, that academic achievement and leadership qualities were not enough to guarantee him a place in graduate school. For a week Julian waited anxiously while his fellow students received offers of graduate fellowships at some of the countrys leading universities. Finally he could stand the suspense no longer and went to the home of his mentor, Dr. William Blanchard, who reluctantly showed him a handful of letters he had received from chemistry professors around the country. According to an article in Ebony, all of the correspondence advised Blanchard to discourage his bright colored lad from pursuing graduate study in the field. We couldnt get him a job when hes done, and itll only mean frustration, one professor had written. Why dont you find him a teaching job in a Negro college in the South? He doesnt need a Ph.D. for that. In Many Shades of Black, published nearly half a century later, Julian recalled his pain and anger upon learning that all of his hard work had come to nothing. There went my dreams and hopes of four years, and as I pressed my lips to hold back the tears, I remembered my breeding, braced myself, and thanked him [Dr. Blanchard] for thinking of me, he wrote.

Determined to Succeed in the Face of Racism

Although Julians father advised him to give up the idea of a career in chemistry to enter medicine, a field which offered more opportunities for blacks, Julian was determined to persevere in his chosen course of study. Louis Haber, writing in Black Pioneers of Science and Invention, traced the fledgling chemists interest in the subject back to a boyhood incident: ever since the day when, as a small child, he had peered through the window of an all-white high school to watch a group of boys at work in a chemistry lab, Julian had wanted to be a chemist. After graduating from DePauw, he took the advice of his professors and accepted a teaching position at Fisk University, a black college in Tennessee. Two years later he was awarded an Austin Fellowship to continue his graduate studies at Harvard. He received his masters degree in chemistry in 1923.

Students of Julians academic rank were ordinarily offered the opportunity to serve as teaching assistants. But according to Paul de Kruif of Readers Digest, the powers-that-be at Harvard felt that because Julian was black, Southern white students might not accept him as a teacher. He remained at Harvard for the next several years under a series of minor research fellowships, waiting on tables, stoking coal, and working at a variety of other part-time jobs in order to make ends meet. In 1926 he accepted a teaching position at the West Virginia State College for Negroes but was so disillusioned by the lack of facilities and intellectual stimulation that he left after only one year. The following year he was offered the position of acting head of the department of chemistry at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He remained there for two years, during which time he helped to plan and oversee the construction of a new, $1 million chemistry lab.

Julian interrupted his teaching career in 1929 when he was awarded a General Education Board Fellowship to continue his graduate studies at the University of Vienna. There he worked side by side with the eminent Viennese chemist Ernst Spath, who had won wide recognition for his synthesis of the drugs nicotine and ephedrine. Like Spath, Julian was intrigued by the ways in which nature converted simple organic compounds into complex substances, such as vitamins and hormones. In an effort to supplement the limited supply of chemical riches produced by plants and animals, the two worked tirelessly to duplicate these patterns of natural conversion in the laboratory. In so doing, they helped to advance the bold, new frontiers of synthetic chemistry.

Among Julians many areas of investigation was the soybean, a product which was then being used in Germany for the manufacture of a variety of drugs, including physostigmine. Physostigmine, originally isolated from the seeds of the Physostigma plant in 1865, causes the pupil of the eye to contract and is thus useful in the treatment of glaucoma. If untreated, glaucoma causes pressure within the eyeball to increase to such an extent that the retinathe light-sensitive layer that lines the interior of the eyeis destroyed, resulting in blindness. In the early 1930s, scientists did not understand why physostigmine reduced pressure within the eye, nor were they able to obtain sufficient quantities from nature to provide patients with the treatment they needed.

A Groundbreaking Achievement

After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna in 1931, Julian returned to the United States to continue his career in teaching. He spent one more year at Howard University, and then, at the invitation of his former professor, Dr. Blanchard, returned to DePauw University as a research fellow and teacher of organic chemistry. At Howard, Julian, together with two of his colleagues from Vienna, had begun an extensive investigation into the structure and synthetic production of physostigmine. When Julian moved to DePauw in 1932, Dr. Blanchard, then dean of the college, arranged for a special laboratory to be designed and equipped for him. At the lab, Julian, the Viennese chemist Dr. Josef Pikl, and six graduate students buried themselves in their research. Before long, their work on the synthesis of physostigmine, much of which was published in monograph form in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, had attracted the attention of the international scientific community. Finally, in 1935, Julian and Dr. Pikl succeeded in producing an exact synthetic replica of physostigmine. Their discovery was hailed by scientists from around the world and the details published in a host of scholarly texts and journals.

Despite his momentous accomplishments in the laboratory, Julian continued to encounter racial prejudice within the academic community. Upon completion of his groundbreaking work with physostigmine, Dean Blanchard recommended that Julian be named head of the chemistry department at DePauw. This would have made him the first African American chemistry professor at a predominantly white American university. But Blanchards colleagues immediately objected to the suggestion, claiming that the appointment would be ill-advised.

Around the same time, the Glidden Company, one of the countrys largest paint, varnish, and chemical manufacturers, was seeking a research chemist to direct a study of the protein-rich soybean. Hearing of Julians achievements, Gliddens vice-president contacted him and offered him the position of chief chemist and director of the companys soya-products division. Worn out by racial conflict in the academic world and eager to face a new challenge, Julian accepted immediately. Nine years later he was named director of research and manager of fine chemicals development. Never before had a black man served in so esteemed a position within the firm, wrote Hamilton Bims in Ebony. The association lasted some 17 years, and Dr. Julian was idolized by his employers and subordinates.

Julians first project at Glidden was to devise a technique for coating paper using soya protein in place of a more expensive milk protein. Some years later the same soya protein was used in the manufacture of Aero-Foam, a firefighting solution that extinguished oil and gasoline fires by forming an impenetrable blanket over them. According to Haber, the solution, which was nicknamed bean soup, helped save the lives of thousands of sailors and naval airmen during World War II. Julians research with soybeans also resulted in an innovative technique for manufacturing synthetic hormones. Hormone deficiency, which often occurs in people of advancing age, can result in cancer, extreme fatigue, and a variety of other medical problems. Although many hormones can be found in sterolsor solid alcoholsproduced by certain animals and vegetables, these sterols are often difficult to extract, or available in very short supply. Using a chemical solvent made of quicklime and plaster of Paris, Julian devised an effective method of extracting sterols from soybean oil. His work resulted in a tremendous increase in the world supply of synthetic progesterone and testosterone, as well as a significant reduction in the cost of hormone treatments.

Produced Synthetic Cortisone from Soybeans

Another of Julians crowning achievements at Gliddenperhaps the most important of his careerwas the synthesis of cortisone from soybean sterols. Cortisone, often referred to as one of sciences miracle drugs, is effective in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis (a chronic disease that causes pain, stiffness, and damage to the joints) and other inflammatory diseases and is now widely available. But in the 1940s, the only way to obtain cortisone was to extract it from the bile of slaughtered oxen. To treat a single patient for one year required the bile from nearly 15,000 animals. Because of the limited supply, the cost of the compound was sky-highcertainly out of reach of the majority of patients who needed it most.

Through his experimentation with soybean sterols, Julian came up with a drug he called cortexolone, or Substance S. The only difference between the molecular structure of Substance S and that of cortisone was that Substance S was missing a single oxygen atom. Before long Julian devised a way to add the missing atom to his compound, and by the end of the decade, synthetic cortisone was available to ease the pain of millions of arthritis sufferers. The synthesis of cortisone, and other of Dr. Julians successes, have been widely acclaimed as singular achievements, noted Bims in Ebony. Yet equally important has been his success in making [such] treatments economicalthus available to all. No ivory tower scientist, he has succeeded consistently in working out ways for the efficient production and marketing of his work.

In 1950 Julian was named Chicagoan of the Year for his outstanding contributions to the field of chemistry. Yet, as documented in Black Pioneers of Science and Invention, he continued to be plagued by racial discrimination. Not long after the awards ceremony, he and his wife bought a large home in the exclusive, all-white community of Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago. On Thanksgiving Dayeven before the Julian family had moved ina band of angry whites attempted to burn the house down. Luckily the disturbance alerted neighbors, who called the fire department in time to save the home. Although the attack was formally denounced by members of the community and by a coalition of Chicago clergymen, less than one year later a dynamite bomb thrown from a car exploded under the bedroom window of the Julian children. The children escaped injury, but their father was incensed. He suffered yet another indignity in the summer of 1951, when, having been invited to participate in a scientific conference at the citys Union League Club, he was informed at the last moment that it was against the rules for people of color to attend.

Established His Own Pharmaceutical Company

Julian left the Glidden Company in 1953 to establish his own firm, Julian Laboratories, Inc., in Chicago, and a subsidiary, Laboratorios Julian de Mexico, in Mexico City. Both companies specialized in the production of synthetic cortisone. His research soon revealed that Mexicos wild yams were an even better source for his products than soybeans, and within a few years, Julian Laboratories had become one of the worlds largest producers of pharmaceuticals synthesized from wild yams. After ten years, however, Julian found the pressure of running two large, international businesses overwhelming. In 1964 he sold both of his companies to the Philadelphia pharmaceutical manufacturer Smith, Kline & French for the sum of nearly $2.4 million. He then went on to establish two smaller enterprises in Franklin Park, Illinois: Julian Associates and the Julian Research Institute. There he was able to continue his basic research. He also served as a special consultant to the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases.

During the last ten years of his life, Julian devoted much of his energy to the civil rights movement. The first African American, as well as the first layperson to direct the Council for Social Action of the Congregational Christian Churches, he also served as co-chairman of the National Business and Professional Committee of the NAACPs Legal Defense and Educational Fund. This organization helped to raise money for the legal defense of black people throughout the country. Over the years, Julian received honorary degrees from a dozen universities and served on the boards of numerous professional, scientific, and civic organizations. He also earned a host of prestigious honors, including the 1947 Spingam Award from the NAACP, the Chemical Pioneer Award from the American Institute of Chemists, and the Procter Prize for extraordinary service to science and humanity.

Reluctant to curb his scientific and professional activities even in the face of cancer, Julian continued to work in his laboratory and attend speaking engagements around the country until shortly before his death in 1975. The little remaining energy he had he devoted to his familyand to the care of his 10,000 prize-winning tulips. His spirit lives on in dozens of lifesaving discoveries, as well as in the halls of Percy L. Julian Junior High School in Oak Park, Illinois, which, in 1985, was renamed in honor of the communitys most famous native son. I have had one goal in my life, Julian was quoted as saying in Ebony, that of playing some role in making life a little easier for the persons who come after me. In 1990, following ten years of pressure from minority members of the National Patent Lawyers Association, Percy Lavon Julian was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, making him one of the first black scientists to be honored in this way.



Davis, Elizabeth L., Fathers of America, Revell, 1958.

Haber, Louis, Black Pioneers of Science and Invention, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970, pp. 122-45.

Haskins, Jim, Outward Dreams: Black Inventors and Their Inventions, Bantam, 1991.

Wormley, S. L., and Fenderson, L. H., editors, Many Shades of Black, Morrow, 1969.


Ebony, March 1975, pp. 94-96.

Jet, June 3, 1985, p. 23; January 29, 1990, p. 9.

Journal of the American Chemical Society, March 1935, vol. 57, no. 3.

New York Times, April 30, 1968; April 21, 1975, p. 32.

Opportunity, March 1941, vol. 19, no. 3.

Readers Digest, August 1946.

Sun-Times (Chicago), November 23, 1950; July 3, 1951.

Caroline B. D. Smith

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Percy Lavon Julian

As the inventor of synthetic cortisone, fire-extinguishing Aero-Foam, and drugs to treat glaucoma, Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975) made life-enhancing and life-saving products more affordable. Despite facing racial prejudice and segregation at nearly every step of his career, Julian became the first African American to be named director of research at a white-owned firm, and he eventually founded his own Julian Laboratories and Julian Research Institute, where he continued as director until his death.

Percy Lavon Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on April 11, 1899; his father was a railway mail clerk, and his grandfather had been a slave. He credited his strict father with providing the discipline and high standards necessary to his success. Reader's Digest reported that when as a young boy Julian proudly brought home a math test with a grade of 80, his father responded, "A son of mine must not be satisfied with mediocrity. After this make it 100!"

As a teenager, Julian moved with his family to Green-castle, Indiana, home of DePauw University. All six of the Julian children, including Percy, studied there. Although he was required to enter the university as a "sub-freshman, " in 1920 he graduated Phi Beta Kappa, as class valedictorian. He hoped to continue his education and become a research scientist in the field of organic chemistry, but his mentors dissuaded him. Although one of his chemistry professors made inquiries to graduate schools on Julian's behalf, they all replied negatively. "Discourage your bright young colored lad, " one school advised. "We couldn't get him a job when he was done, and it'll only mean frustration. Why don't you find him a teaching job in a Negro college in the South? He doesn't need a Ph.D. for that."

Despite his father's suggestion that he go into medicine, where he could be more independent, Julian persisted in chemistry. He went to Fisk University in Nashville, a school for African Americans, where he taught until 1923. The talent of his students encouraged him to pursue his own dream, and he applied for a research fellowship at Harvard. He earned his Master's degree in a year, finishing in the top group of his class. Had he been white, Harvard would have rewarded him with a post as a teaching assistant, but, as they explained to Julian, they feared that white students from the South would not accept him as a teacher. He stayed at Harvard on minor research fellowships, then returned to the South to teach at all-black schools West Virginia State College and Howard University, where after one year he was appointed head of the chemistry department.

Invented Drug for Glaucoma

Julian's research at Harvard served him well later. He had begun to repeat the experiments of the Austrian chemist Ernst Spth, who had learned to synthesize chemicals such as nicotine and ephedrine-rather than studying these compounds as they appeared in nature, Julian experimented on making these chemicals himself. With the financial backing of a wealthy Harvard classmate, he went to Vienna to study with Spth. Spth welcomed Julian into his household, initiating a father-son relationship and working closely together on synthesizing a variety of naturally occurring chemicals. Through his work with Spth, Julian received his Ph.D. at the University of Vienna in 1931. With his Ph.D., he returned to Howard, and then went again to DePauw, where he both taught and researched, but was denied the title of professor because of his race.

Although he would make one of his most important discoveries at this time, Julian's students remembered him as a committed teacher. Chemist J. Wayne Cole recalled in Ebony magazine, "He was obviously involved in his laboratory work but was essentially an instructor-first and foremost. It was the shaping of the student that appealed to him the most. And believe me, he never tolerated laziness or disinterestedness."

While carrying his teaching load, Julian pursued the problem of synthesizing physostigmine, a chemical known to help in the treatment of glaucoma. Despite years of effort, chemists had not been able to make the chemical in the laboratory. With fundraising help from his former professor Dean William Blanchard, Julian's research progressed rapidly and attracted international attention as he reported his findings in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. When he finally succeeded, he was universally acknowledged as leader in the field of chemistry. Dean Blanchard moved to appoint Julian as the head of DePauw's chemistry department, to make Julian the first professor of chemistry at any traditionally white university in America, and to make DePauw, as Reader's Digest reported, "a chemical Mecca." Blanchard's colleagues refused, calling the appointment "inadvisable."

Soybean Research Enabled More Innovations

With his academic career apparently at a dead-end, Julian received a timely invitation from Chicago's Glidden Company to direct soybean research. While there, he developed a process for isolating and preparing soya protein, which led to a number of important inventions. Among the most highly praised was his "bean soup, " commercially known as Aero-Foam, which the Navy used during wartime to put out fires; he also developed a soy protein for coating paper at a fraction of the cost of the previously used milk casein.

Even more important was his discovery of a technique by which he could mass-produce the hormones testosterone and progesterone. Testosterone was then touted as an anti-aging drug for men, while progesterone helped prevent spontaneous abortion in pregnant mothers. While these hormones were available in nature, they were difficult to get, with the supply limited to the brains and spines of cattle that had been slaughtered. Although German chemists had extracted hormones from soybean oil, the technique they used was expensive and could not provide them in commercial quantities. Julian discovered away to make the oil porous, enabling chemists to create mass quantities of the hormones.

The invention of Compound S, however, is considered Julian's biggest scientific achievement. Natural cortisone was a recognized treatment for rheumatoid arthritis and other illnesses causing muscle pain; to get it, however, the bile from nearly 15, 000 oxen would be required to treat a single patient for a year. The limited supply of cortisone made it impractical as a treatment option. Again using soybean oils, Julian created a drug-Compound S-that could mimic the effects of natural cortisone in the body. His synthesized cortisone resembled natural cortisone in every way, except that it lacked an oxygen atom in a crucial position. Because the body itself could replace that atom when the drug was used, the therapeutic result was the same. Julian's discovery made the benefits of cortisone economically feasible for all patients.

Racial Discrimination Did Not Deter Him

Julian patented these and nearly 130 other chemical innovations, enabling him to earn make a living much larger than that available to most blacks. In 1950, shortly after he had been named "Chicagoan of the Year" in a Chicago Sun-Times poll, Julian moved into the white, middle-class suburb of Oak Park, Illinois. He purchased an ornate, 15-room house and planned extensive landscaping and improvements, but even before he and his family moved in, they received threats and were the victims of an attempted arson. The water commissioner refused to turn on their water, until the family threatened to go to court. Julian was compelled to hire a private guard to patrol the property 24 hours a day. He told Time, "We've lived through these things all our lives. As far as the hurt to the spirit goes, we've become accustomed to that."

Julian continued to confront racism in his professional life as well. In 1951, when the Research Corporation of New York City invited Julian, along with 34 other scientists, to hear a talk at the Union League Club of Chicago, the club's manager contacted the organization and informed them that Julian would not be permitted to enter the building. The New York Times reported that the club's directors had issued "explicit instructions" forbidding Julian's attendance. By 1956, he had become more actively involved in opposing racial injustice. He became the first black man to chair the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches' Council for Social Action. The council voted to raise litigation funds for a delegate who had been refused admission to an American Legion Post, and, according to the New York Times, called on members to "support nonsegregated practices in selling, buying, and leasing property."

In 1967, Julian and North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company president Asa Spaulding organized a group of 47 wealthy business persons and professionals to raise money for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The group, calling itself the National Negro Business and Professional Committee for the Legal Defense Fund, announced in the New York Times, "This means the Negro millionaire is coming of age and taking a responsible place in the community." The committee planned to raise $1 million a year for cases involving voting rights, school desegregation, and job discrimination. Julian had been connected with the NAACP since 1947, when he won their Spingarn Medal Award.

Founded His Own Laboratories

Julian's financial success also enabled him to leave Glidden in 1953 and found Julian Laboratories. In addition to his suburban Chicago laboratory, he established subsidiaries in Mexico and Guatemala, which studied the possible medical benefits of the Mexican yam. These pharmaceutical businesses were so successful that eventually Julian, approaching his mid-60s, found the pressure to be too much, and in 1961 he sold them for nearly $2.4 million. In 1964, he retired as president from Julian Laboratories, then became director of Julian Research Institute and president of Julian Associates.

In 1974, Julian became increasingly ill, and was diagnosed with cancer of the liver. Despite a lack of energy and a difficult schedule of treatment, Julian continued to work and give speeches. In November of that year, he was honored by Sigma Xi, a society of research scientists, with the Procter Prize for extraordinary service to science and humanity. As Ebony reported, in his acceptance speech he discussed the benefits and drawbacks of scientific advancements: "Many of these successes have been abused, he acknowledged, while others have been the subjects of material applications having little implication for the enrichment of the spirit; man has treasured them as weapons or employed them as gadgets." Despite this, he said, he "shares the humanistic faith in an ordered, purposeful and meaningful reality."

Shortly before his death, Julian announced that he was satisfied with his life's work. "I have had one goal in my life, " he said, "that of playing some role in making life a little easier for the persons who come after me." He died in April of 1975. In addition to many academic honors and citations he received during his lifetime, he was honored in 1993 by the U.S. Postal Service with a postage stamp in the Black Heritage Series. He was also honored by the city of Oak Park, Illinois, which named a middle school after one of its first residents.

Further Reading

Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 6, Gale, 1994.

Ebony, March 1975.

Jet, June 3, 1985; January 29, 1990.

New York Times, January 18, 1950; July 19, 1951; June 28, 1956; March 20, 1967; April 21, 1975.

Reader's Digest, August, 1946.

Stamps, February 13, 1993.

Time, December 4, 1950.

"Percy Julian School, " (March 20, 1998).

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(b. Montgomery, Alabama, 11 April 1899; d. Waukegan, Illinois, 19 April 1975)

organic chemistry.

Percy Lavon Julian was the oldest of the six children ofJames Sumner and Elizabeth Lena (Adams) Julian. His mother was a school teacher, and his father, originally a teacher, took a job as a railway mail clerk shortly after Percy was born. Although public education for Alabama blacks at the time rarely extended beyond eighth grade, in 1916 Julian graduated from the State Normal School for Negroes in Montgomery, which his parents had attended, and he entered DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. When he received his A.B. degree in 1920. Julian was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and named valedictorian of his class. For two years he served as an instructor in chemistry at Fisk University, then began graduate study at Harvard University, where he received his A.M. degree in chemistry in 1923. He remained at Harvard as a research fellow until 1926. He then served as professor of chemistry, for one year at West Virginia State College for Negroes and for two years at Howard University.

In 1929 Julian received a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation to continue his graduate work at the University of Vienna. His research there under the direction of Ernst Späth on the alkaloids of Corydalis cava earned him the Ph.D. degree in 1931. He returned to Howard University as head of the chemistry department for one year, then was a research fellow and taught organic chemistry at DePauw University from 1932 to 1936. On 24 December 1935 Percy Julian married Anna Johnson, a sociologist. They had two children, Percy Lavon, Jr., and Faith Roselle.

When he was denied a professorship at DePauw because of prejudice against blacks, Julian became director of research of the Soya Products Division of the Glidden Company, Chicago, Illinois. Later he also was named director of research for Glidden’s Durkee Famous Foods Division and manager of the Fine Chemicals Division. In 1954 Julian started his own chemical firm, Julian Laboratories, which manufactured intermediates for industrial production of steroids. After selling his company in 1961 he continued as president for several years. In 1964 he founded the Julian Research Institute, where he served as director until his death from cancer at age seventy-six.

Julian’s financial success and fame enabled him to be a major force in the civil rights movement. In 1967 he was appointed cochairman of a group of successful black Americans who raised money for the Legal Defense and Education Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. This fund enabled lawsuits to be brought to enforce civil rights laws. He was active in civic affairs and many national organizations and was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1973.

Percy Julian’s significant research in the chemistry of natural products began with the total synthesis of physostigmine, an alkaloid isolated from Calabar beans and important in the treatment of glaucoma. This he accomplished in 1935 with the assistance of Josef Pikl, formerly a fellow student at the University of Vienna whom Julian had assisted in coming to the United States to work with him. Their total synthesis confirmed the structural formula assigned to physostigmine. Julian also at this time extracted from Calabar beans stigmasterol, a phytosterol that reportedly could serve as raw material for synthesis of male and female hormones.

Julian’s principal work during his eighteen years directing research at the Glidden Company was the development of processes for preparation of substances of commercial value from soybeans. When he arrived in 1936, the firm had purchased a new plant in Germany for the extraction of oil from soybeans for the production of refined oils for paints and other uses; he supervised the assembly of this plant at Glidden. Julian’s first laboratory task was to develop processes for further separation and purification of the various components of the extracted, oil-free soybean meal and to determine uses for them. Julian’s laboratory prepared refined protein products that could replace milk casein in industrial applications, such as coating and sizing of paper and in manufacture of paints and other Glidden products. Julian designed and supervised the construction of a plant to produce these soya proteins; its eventual daily output of forty tons of commercially important products made the Soya Products Division one of Glidden’s most profitable divisions. Soy protein was also developed as the base of an oxygenimpenetrable, fire-fighting foam used by the U.S. armed forces in World War II. Theremaining meal, following the separation of these protein products, was shown to be of value as a supplement in livestock and poultry feeds. Julian and his laboratory workers also developed derivatives of the crude oil fraction. including edible oils for preparation of margarine, saladoils, and dressings, and soylecithin, used widely as an emulsifier in manufacture of foods. As the scope of research expanded. Julian hired additional chemists, some of whom were his former students at DePauw University, and within ten years his research program developed into an important industrial laboratory.

A change in the direction of Julian’s research occurred in 1940 when he began recovering sterols from soybean oil. At that time clinicians were discovering many uses for the newly discovered sex hormones. However, only minute quantities of progesterone, testosterone, and the estrogens could be produced from the extraction of hundreds of pounds of spinal cords, testicles, or ovaries. Soybean oil was known to contain a mixture of sterols, and Julian perfected means by which soya sterols could be isolated and converted to these hormones. At one stage in processing the oil a porous, solid. foamliike soap could be produced, from which the soya sterols were extracted with solvents. Glidden manufactured large quantities of progesterone and testosterone, utilizing on an industrial scale the chemical reactions for the modification of sterols devised in Julian’s laboratory, which now included over fifty chemists. Julian and his co-workers published many articles on the chemistry of sterols in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, and they obtained patents on key processes in preparation of steroids from soybeans.

In 1949 the importance of cortisone for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis produced a rush by many pharmaceutical firms to produce cortisone and its analogs, yet most of the syntheses were dependent upon scarce bile acid starting materials. Julian undertook the synthesis of cortisone from pregnenolone, available in abundance from soya sterol, and devised a multistep process for conversion of pregnenolone to cortexolone (Reichstein’s Substance S). with differs from cortisone in lacking an oxygen at the C-11 position. The industrial production of cortisone was revolutionized in 1952 when the Upjohn Company announced that oxygenation at C-11 could be accomplished in high yield by microbiological oxidation. This made progesterone, pregnenolone, and cortexolone valuable intermediates for the production of a variety of corticoid drugs, and Upjohn sought manufacturers capable of supplying the ton quantities needed.

It was at this time that Percy Julian left his position at Glidden to start Julian realized that an even more abundant plant source of hormones was a Mexican Diosorea, commonly called wild yam, rich in diosgenin. In a subsidiary in Mexico City, Laboratorios Julián de México, 16-dehydropregnenolone oxide was prepared from diosgenin and shipped to Julian Laboratories in the United States. There Julian and his team of chemists transformed “oxide” into many derivatives of cortexolone through a complex series of reactions they devised. These valuable intermediates were sold to pharmaceutical firms for production via microbiological oxidation of a wide variety of steroids of the cortisone family. In 1961 Julian sold his firm to Smith, Kline, and French Laboratories for 2.3 million dollars. In later years he continued his research on steroid chemistry as director of the Julian Research Institute. Percy Julian’s skill in guiding industrial research and his creativity in novel chemical syntheses are well illustrated in his publications and patents dealing with chemical manipulations of the structures of steroids.


1. Orginal Works. A list of Julian’s scientific publications and patents is in Bernhard Witkop. “Percy Lavon Julian, 1899–1975,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences. 52 (1980). 223–266. His most important articles include “Studies in the Indole Series. V. The Complete Synthesis of physostigmine (Eserine),” in Journal of the American Chemical Society. 57 (1935), 755–757, written with Josef Pikl; “Sterols. IX. Theselective Halogenation and Dehalogenation of Certain Steroids (Part I)” ibid., 72 (1950), 365–366, writen with willian J Karpel; “sterols. XIII. Chemistry of the Adrenal cortex Steroids.” in Recent Progress in Hormone Research. 6 (1951).195–214: “Sterols. XV. Cortisone and Analogs. Part I 16a-Hydroxy and 16a, 17a-Epoxy Analogs to Cortisone,” in Journal of the American Chemical Society. 77 (1955). 4601–4604. written with Wayne Cole. Edwin W. Meyer. and Bernard M. Regan: and “Sterols XVI. Cortisone and Analogs. Part 2, 17a21-Dihydroxy4-pregnene-3.12.20-trione.” ibid., 78 (1956) 3153–3158, written with Chappelle C.Cochrane. Arthur Magnini, and William J. Karpel.

Addresses and written works for general audiences include “The Chemist as Scholar and Humanist,” in Chemist (American Institute of Chemists).42 (1965).101–104; “On Being Scientist. Humanist. and Negro, ’ in Stanton L. Wormley and Lewis H. Fenderson, eds., Many Shades of Black (New York, 1969), 147–157;and “Science, an Ally of the Humanities.” in American Scientist, 63 (1975).13–15.

Some personal papers are in the possession of Dr. Anna J. Julian.

II. Secondary Literature. W. Montague Cobb, “Percy Lavon Julian,” in Journal of the National Medical Association. 63 (1971), 143–150, and “Onward and Upward-Percy Lavon Julian, 1899–1975.” in Crisis, 85 (1978).166–171: Louis Haber. Black Pioneers of Science and Invention (New York.1970), 86–101;and Max Tishler, “Percy L.Julian, the Scientist.” in Chemist (American Institute of Chemists).42 (1965). 105–113. The text of the addresses given at a symposium to honor Julian on 12–13 May 1972 at MacMurray College is in the library of that college in Jacksonville, lllinois.

Daniel P. Jones