The Life and Times of Percy Julian
Steroids from Soybeans: 1948-1953

Cortisone and Progesterone

In late 1939 or early 1940 an accident involving one of the big soybean oil storage tanks at the Glidden Company unexpectedly revealed to Percy Julian a method for producing large amounts of a substance called stigmasterol from soybeans.

Stigmasterol is a steroidClick to go to Activity., a class of chemical compounds that includes the sex hormones and several other human hormones. Because stigmasterol was in the same family as other hormones, it could be used as a starting material from which to make other hormones. One such hormone was progesterone, a female sex hormone that was important in helping pregnant women avoid miscarriages.

Though scientists already knew how to synthesize progesterone from stigmasterol, they didn't have a method for doing it on a massive scale. With his new method for producing large amounts of stigmasterol at hand, Julian set to work on developing a process for converting it to progesterone in bulk. He was successful, and progesterone became an important medicine in the 1940s for that reason.

In 1948 scientists at the famous Mayo Clinic in Minnesota discovered that the human hormone cortisone was good for treating arthritis, a disease of the joints in humans. Animals make cortisone naturally, but not very much of it. For example, you would have to slaughter 167 cattle to get one gram of cortisone. So natural cortisone was very expensive, and not many arthritis patients could afford it.

With the news from the Mayo Clinic, Julian began to wonder if he couldn’t synthesize cortisone from stigmasterol too, since cortisone was also a steroid hormone. He tried it, and his experiment was a success. The cortisone that had cost $700 per gram could now be made for about 50 cents per gram. Just as Julian made physostigmine affordable for glaucoma patients, he now made cortisone affordable for arthritis patients. Julian had made yet another great breakthrough while at Glidden Click to go to Activity..

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