The Life and Times of Percy Julian
Vienna: 1929-1931

Julian Earns His Ph.D.

Percy Julian arrived in Vienna, Austria, to work as a graduate student under Ernst Späth in 1929. He had a wonderful time during the years he spent in Vienna. Click to go to Activity.

Like many other African Americans of that time, he found the freedom to pursue his goals away from the United States and its racial biases. He learned to speak German and became an opera lover. At social events he was often the life of the party since he was charming and funny, and he played the piano well. He made many friends in Vienna, including Joseph Pikl, who would become his closest collaborator.

His research under Späth involved the discovery of new chemical compounds in a plant called corydalis cava found in Austria. Julian finished his graduate work in organic chemistry in the fall of 1931, making him the third African American in history to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry. 

He then returned to Howard University, bringing Pikl with him. Julian didn’t get along very well with the administration at Howard, so he and Pikl both left in 1932 to take research jobs back at Julian’s old school, DePauw University, thanks to the efforts of Julian’s former mentor, William Blanchard. There Julian and Pikl worked together in the laboratory, trying to synthesize new organic compounds. It was this collaborative work at DePauw that would make them famous.

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