The Life and Times of Percy Julian
Julian's College Experiences: 1916-1926

DePauw and Harvard

Since Percy Julian had attended a “normal school” and not a regular high school, when he entered DePauw University in 1916, he was required to take special courses for two years to make up for what he would have learned in high school. Only when he finished those could he start taking freshman college courses.

DePauw was located in Greencastle, Indiana, over 600 miles from Julian’s home and family, and a long way to go in those days. Knowing that his education was not as good as that of most other students at DePauw, he wondered how he would be treated by the mostly white students. He recalled later, “On my first day in College, I remember walking in and a white fellow stuck out his hand and said ‘How are you? – Welcome!’ I had never shaken hands with a white boy before and did not know whether I should or not.”1

Julian did not have it easy in college. Click to go to Activity. He lived in the attic of a fraternity house and worked as a waiter in the fraternity’s dining room to pay the rent. He also made money digging ditches.

Science Club Photo

The DePauw University Science Club, c. 1920. Julian is pictured top left. Courtesy DePauw University Archives and Special Collections.

A chemistry professor at DePauw, William Blanchard, took Julian under his wing, and Julian turned out to be an excellent student. When Julian graduated in 1920, he had the highest grades in his class, and was a member of the honor society Phi Beta Kappa. Julian’s parents were so happy with his education at DePauw that they moved their family to Greencastle. All of Julian’s younger brothers and sisters went to DePauw when they were older. 

After college Julian knew that in order to be a chemist he would have to go to graduate school. No university would accept him because of his race, however, so Julian took a job teaching chemistry at Fisk University, a respected college for African Americans in Nashville, Tennessee. He enjoyed teaching and was good at it. After two years he got word that William Blanchard, his former teacher at DePauw, had persuaded Harvard University to admit Julian to graduate school. While a grad student, Julian did research in organic chemistry, Click to go to Activity. which is the study of compounds that contain the element carbon.

Julian graduated from Harvard in 1923 with a master’s degree, taking only one year to complete the program. He wanted to stay on as a student, earn his Ph.D., and teach at Harvard, but once again he was denied advancement because of his race. Despite this rejection, he stayed on at Harvard doing research for three more years, but eventually he decided he wanted to teach again.

1 Bernhard Witkop, Percy Lavon Julian: 1899–1975, Biographical Memoirs, vol. 52 (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1980), 6–7.

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