A Day in the Life of Percy Julian: Working at Glidden
Every day, bright and early, Percy Julian would arrive at his first-floor office at the headquarters of the Glidden Company Soya Division. He’d say good morning to his secretary, Joan Bowman, and then proceed to his desk, which was usually piled high with papers. Ms. Bowman was forever trying to keep his desk neat, but the piles of papers couldn’t be tamed. She would say that his desk looked like “a Kansas windstorm” hit it.
Julian’s drive to work was usually uneventful. He’d drive from his home in Oak Park, a ritzy suburb of Chicago. Julian and his family were able to buy a house there in 1950, thanks to his good job at Glidden. Normally a quiet place to live, it was not so quiet when the Julians first moved inhis house was fire-bombed twice by people who didn’t like a black family moving into a predominantly white neighborhood, no matter what their position in life or contributions to society.
Julian’s office at headquarters wasn’t far from the factory where Glidden made all kinds of things from soybeans. An awful smell would drift in through his window from the factory; soybeans can smell pretty bad when they’re decomposing! Julian worked with soybeans, too, but in a lab near his office. In the lab Julian supervised a research team. Some people on his team were chemists, and others were engineers. The team’s job was to discover new ways to make useful products from soybeans. Julian had already discovered a good way to get steroids from soybeans. This allowed Glidden to make money selling steroid medicines, like cortisone.
The odorous factory was brand new back in 1936, when Julian first started working at Glidden. Back then, Glidden used soybeans to make things like paints, paper coatings, and food products. They also made cosmetics and plastic from soybeans. In 1940 Julian discovered a protein in soybeans that could be used to make a fire-fighting foam. It was called Aer-O-Foam, and it was especially good for putting out oil and gas fires on ships at sea. It was first used by the U.S. Navy during World War II, and it is still used today.
By now Julian had become used to his role as an industrial chemist. It was a lot different from being a research chemist at a university like DePauw. When Julian worked in university labs, he sometimes did “pure research.” That is, he was trying to find the answers to scientific questions, sometimes out of pure curiosity. Other times, Julian did research to try to solve a practical problem. For example, he synthesized physostigmine because he wanted to make the drug cheaper for people who needed it.
At Glidden, Julian didn’t do “pure research.” He only did research that might make products that Glidden could sell. What’s more, he also had to figure out ways to solve technical problems at the plant where soybean products were manufactured. Plus, since he was trying to make useful products to sell, he had to figure out how to make large quantities of them. When Julian was at DePauw, synthesizing physostigmine, he only had to make a few grams of it in the lab. Now Julian had to synthesize compounds by the ton, which is a lot trickier.
At Glidden, Julian wasn't just a chemist. He was also an engineer, a salesman, and a supervisor. Over 30 people worked under him. This meant he spent a lot of time checking up on their work and making sure they had everything they needed to do their jobs. Once, in 1949, Julian was “unable to write experimental work on time because of the voluminous letters you must write to executives, co-workers, and so forth, on plant operations, policies and the like.” But he still managed to get plenty of research done. While Julian worked at Glidden, he earned more than 60 patents.
Because his research at Glidden was limited to what Glidden was willing to pursue, Julian couldn’t do research on just anything he thought was interesting. So he started his own company, called Suburban Chemical, where he could do his own research. At Suburban Chemical, Julian made vitamins and drug compounds. He was still working at Glidden, though. He would work a full day for Glidden, then go work at Suburban Chemical all evening. He often wouldn’t get home until 11:00 at night. He even worked like this on weekends.
Somehow Julian still found time to be involved with his church, several universities, the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He took summer vacations with the family in Arizona, and he spent hours tending his prized flowers at his home on East Avenue in Oak Park.