The obstacles put in the path of Percy Lavon Julian could disjoint a saint but he persevered and achieved excellence. Julian, born in Montgomery, Alabama on April 11, 1899, to a railway mail clerk, came from a stock of enslaved grandparents. And when he arrived, the world was prejudiced in all aspects of life, including the scientific world.
Julian was academically inclined but after the eighth grade, he found there were no high schools open to Black students. He then applied to DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, but had to take high school-level classes in the evening. He excelled, graduating first in his class, with Phi Beta Kappa honors.
After college, Julian taught at Fisk University as a chemistry instructor. He left in 1923 when he received a scholarship to attend Harvard University to finish his master’s degree. Julian faced an obstacle when the university was reluctant in allowing him to pursue his doctorate. He later taught at Black colleges before obtaining his Ph.D. at the University of Vienna in Austria in 1931.
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He then returned to DePauw to continue his research. In 1935, he earned praise by “synthesizing physostigmine from the calabar bean to create a drug treatment for glaucoma,” according to Biography. Julian soon found that despite his knowledge pool and academic credentials, the university refused to make him a full professor because of his race.
Julian also tasted systemic racism when prominent chemical companies where he applied for jobs as manager dropped him once they got to know he was Black.
Eventually, Glidden Company hired him as the lab director and it was here that he invented 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.”
Julian later discovered how to extract sterols from soybean oil and synthesize the hormones progesterone and testosterone, according to Biography. He was further commended for his synthesis of cortisone, which became used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.
The lecturer at West Virginia State College and Howard University has also been labeled as part of the “Five inventors who changed the world.”
Julian remained at Glidden until 1954, when he founded his own company, Julian Laboratories of Franklin Park, Illinois, and Mexico City. He was a member of DePauw’s Board of Trustees and was the first recipient of the University’s McNaughton Medal for meritorious public service.
Julian helped advance conditions for African Americans, and served on boards of many organizations and universities as well as helping found the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of Chicago.
In 1950, Julian was named Chicago’s Man of the Year in a Chicago Sun-Times poll.
However, just as he gained fame for his brilliant works, racist bigots bombed his home when he moved to the all-white suburb of Oak Park.
The great chemist died on April 19, 1975, in Waukegan, Illinois. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1993, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor.