The Life and Science of Percy Julian
Activities and Readings
4A (Reading)

A Day in the Life: Vienna

When Percy Julian lived in Vienna, Austria, he got up every morning and walked from his apartment to the laboratory where he worked. The lab was at the University of Vienna, and the walk was a short one. Julian was working on his Ph.D. in chemistry at the university. At the lab he was surrounded by 15 other graduate students who loved chemistry as much as he did. He took courses taught by Ernst Späth, whose work Julian had admired for years. Julian’s own research project was directed by Späth, who was a demanding teacher.

Julian was often in the labs by 8:00 a.m. and stayed until after 6:00 p.m. He kept his lab spotless. (His apartment, on the other hand, was often a mess.) In the lab Julian was trying to separate special compounds from plants. These compounds are called alkaloids, and separating them was not easy. He had to grind up seeds and dissolve them, run chemical reactions, purify the compounds, and identify them. The work was slow and tedious.

Julian had to bring his own lab equipment with him to Vienna. He had it shipped from the United States. The University of Vienna was a good school with a strong chemistry program, and the scientists there did first-rate research. But in 1929 Austria was still recovering from World War I. The war had been over for 11 years, but times were still tough in Austria. The Great Depression hit Austria even before it hit the United States, and it hit Austria much harder. The University of Vienna didn’t have much money to spend on new lab equipment. Thanks to Julian, Späth’s lab had better equipment than just about any other lab at the university.

Julian was doing research on a plant called Corydalis cava. This plant has small purple flowers and grows wild in the forests around Vienna. Julian spent a lot of time analyzing the compounds in Corydalis cava. When Julian graduated in 1930, his dissertation was about his research on these compounds.

Just like when he was a boy in Alabama, Julian still liked to spend time outdoors. He loved the trips to the forest near the old part of Vienna. And he loved the city and all it had to offer. By his own account, his two years in Vienna were among the happiest of his life. Julian learned to speak fluent German. He enjoyed the social life in the city. He was funny, charming, and well liked by most people who knew him.

Julian made many friends in Vienna. The Mosettig family were some of his best friends. The two sons in the family were also studying chemistry, so they had a lot in common with Julian. He took hiking and skiing trips with the Mosettigs. He went swimming with them in the Danube River and played tennis with them, too. He also went to the opera with the family. Julian loved music. He took piano lessons from Frau Mosettig and became a very good piano player.

Another friend that Julian made in Vienna was Joseph Pikl. The two young chemists worked so well together that they decided to keep working together after they graduated. When Julian graduated, he returned to his life in the United States, bringing Pikl with him.

Before Julian left to go to Vienna, he had begun to date a woman named Anna Johnson. Julian corresponded with her while he was in Europe. The two were reunited when he came back from Vienna. They eventually married on Christmas Eve in 1935.

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