We're History: Percy Julian Brought to Life for IYC 2011 in Chemical Engineering Progress

January 1, 2011 - New York, NY

By Neil Gussman

As part of the U.S. kickoff of the International Year of Chemistry (IYC 201 1), professor and historical recreator James Armstead will spend Feb. 3 in character as Percy Lavon Julian, a great American chemist. Julian was the subject of a 2005 award-winning PBS documentary entitled Forgotten Genius.

An actor of considerable range, Armstead has recreated many characters. For the IYC event, he will be Percy Julian for students at the AfricanAmerican Museum of Philadelphia and at the College of Physicians.*

Percy Julian was the grandson of a slave. He was born in Montgomery, AL, on Apr. 11, 1899, into the poorest and most segregated conditions found in the U.S. after the end of slavery. He went to a segregated elementary school that did not offer science classes. There was no high school for AfricanAmericans in Montgomery, so he went to Alabama State Normal School, a school for blacks that taught practical skills such as blacksmithing and hat-making and trained teachers to teach in black schools. It, too, offered no science classes.

Julian read about science in his father's home library, and chemistry fascinated him. He soon wanted to be a chemist.

Despite many obstacles, Julian convinced his father that he could achieve his goal, and in 1916, with the help of a teacher named Joan Stuart at the Normal School, he entered DePauw Univ. in Indiana to study chemistry. He went on to graduate, but as an African- American, found it difficult to get work or an advanced degree in the U.S.

He eventually went to Vienna, where he found success and acceptance. While there, he made many friends, including Josef Pikl, who would become his closest collaborator, and he earned a PhD in chemistry.

After receiving his doctorate, Julian returned to DePauw Univ. with Pikl and studied chemicals found in plants. They searched for a way to synthesize physostigmine, an effective treatment for glaucoma, and raced against England's Robert Robinson - a future Nobel Prize winner - to make the drug.

Robinson thought he had won the race, and he wrote a paper presenting his results. Julian and PUcI read the paper, proved that Robinson's proposed synthesis did not work, and published their own successful results. They had triumphed over one of the best chemists in the world, and in 1935, scientists everywhere took notice of what they had accomplished - a way to make physostigmine inexpensively, opening the door to the affordable treatment of glaucoma.

The GIidden Co. hired Julian in 1 936 to find useful products that could be made from soybeans. Under his direction, GIidden 's Soya Div. created many soy-based products. One of the first was lecithin, which is used to preserve food and to keep chocolate smooth. Another was a fire retardant called Aer-o-foam, which was used by the Navy during World War II to fight fires on ships at sea.

Julian developed coatings for paper and latex paints, oils for salad dressings and shortenings, and eventually glues and plastics. He registered numerous patents for soybean products while he was at GIidden, pioneering soybeans as an important crop in America.

Glidden allowed Julian to make steroids from soybeans because they had lots of soybeans and wanted to use them to make money. Julian went on to synthesize cortisone, bringing relief to millions of arthritis patients.

But GIidden was not interested in making medicines from other plants, and Julian was. So he took the bold step of quitting his steady job to go into business for himself. In 1954, he started Julian Laboratories, whose main task was researching steroids. Instead of making steroids from soybeans, however, he focused on the Mexican yam.

Julian Laboratories built factories in Mexico and Guatemala to process the yams, and Julian discovered more new medicines, including an improved version of cortisone. Even more important, he developed new processes for making old products. Eventually, bigger drug companies started to take notice. In 1961, Julian sold his company for $2 million to Smith, Kline, and French, a much larger drug company.

Even before he sold his company, Julian was a rich man. In 1960, he made Ebony magazine's list of the wealthiest African-Americans. After selling Julian Laboratories, he started the Julian Research Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to training young research chemists.

Julian's life oscillated between success in the lab and racial trouble in the wider world. His Oak Park, IL, home was bombed after the Chicago Chamber of Commerce named him "Chicagoan of the Year" in 1950, and again the following year...

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