The Life and Times of Percy Julian

For Teachers

The Life and Science of Percy Julian:
Main Narrative (Teacher Version)

1. Developing an Early Love for Science: 1899–1916

Percy Lavon Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on 11 April 1899. Although he was born on the cusp of the 20th century, the early part of his life was shaped by the events of the 19th century. He was African American—the grandson of slaves—growing up at a time when post–Civil War Reconstruction (the attempt to give African Americans political rights) was long past and Jim Crow segregation was practiced in Alabama and most other parts of the country. In fact, segregation had been ruled completely legal just three years before Julian’s birth, in the U.S. Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson.

Legal segregation was only one of the obstacles faced by any ambitious African American. It was reinforced by general attitudes that can only be described as racist. Many white Americans believed that African Americans were not smart enough to handle the “higher reasoning” required to be a scientist, or lawyer, or businessman. These attitudes were sometimes backed up by scientists, who tried to prove that racism was justified. Even when individual African Americans showed great promise, white Americans justified excluding them from opportunities on the basis of the supposed weaknesses of “their race.” In fact, showing too much ability or ambition might make someone a target of white reaction. The Ku Klux Klan emerged at the end of the 19th century; part of its purpose was to intimidate those people who resisted segregation.

Considering the adverse historical circumstances of his birth, however, Percy Julian also had some factors working in favor of his development as a scientist. The most important of these were his parents. James Julian was a mail clerk for the railroad. In the Jim Crow South, that was a fairly high-status occupation for an African American. It allowed him to travel widely and meet a variety of people, including educated white Americans. Although James and his wife, Elizabeth, had only a basic education themselves, they valued education highly for their children.

The segregated elementary school that Percy Julian attended offered no science classes. Nor was there a high school for African Americans in Julian’s home town of Montgomery. So after finishing his elementary schooling, he went on to study at the black “normal school,” which also did not offer any science. One day, Julian hung out at a fence near the white high school, watching the students with great interest as they learned chemistry. His watching was interrupted by a police officer, who sternly told him not to hang out near the school again. But Julian left the area with a firm determination to become a chemist.

At first, Julian’s father tried to steer him away from becoming a scientist. After all, there were no career opportunities for an African American in science. Instead, he suggested that he could become a doctor, since there was a demand for black doctors who would treat black patients. But Julian’s determination was increased with the news of St. Elmo Brady, the first African American to get a Ph.D. in chemistry, in 1916.

In 1916 Julian left Alabama to attend the mostly white DePauw University in Indiana.

2. Julian’s College Experiences: 1916–1926

DePauw University changed Julian’s life. He later recalled: “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.” (Witkop, pp. 6–7)

But being accepted was not the same thing as facing no obstacles. Julian had to earn his tuition and living expenses by working as a waiter and a ditch-digger. He lived in the attic of a fraternity house. And he had to take remedial classes as a “sub-freshman” because his schooling in Montgomery had left so many gaps in his basic knowledge.

By the time he graduated with a B.A. in chemistry in 1920, Julian was valedictorian of his class and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, the national honor society. His success inspired his brothers and sisters to enroll in and graduate from DePauw too, and for his parents to move to Greencastle, Indiana. But what could Julian do next? Some of his white classmates had been awarded fellowships to study for a master’s or Ph.D. at other universities. But Julian got nothing. He finally got a job as a chemistry instructor at Fisk University, a college for African Americans in Nashville, Tennessee.

Back in a segregated environment, Julian redoubled his enthusiasm for chemistry. He wrote a whole new series of lectures on organic chemistry. He gave copies of the lectures to his old professor at DePauw, William Blanchard, who praised them highly. Julian got Blanchard’s support for the next step in his progress as a scientist: a fellowship to study at Harvard University. He wanted to study with Edward P. Kohler, one of the top experts in organic chemistry.

Julian entered Harvard in 1922 and got his master’s degree one year later, once again finishing at the top of his class. Ordinarily, such accomplishments would have gotten him a position as teaching assistant, but once again racial prejudice kept him from getting the position. Instead, Julian relied on small grants to keep working in Harvard’s state-of-the-art laboratories.

3. Julian’s Struggle to Find a Place as a Chemist: 1926–1929

Julian wanted to get back into the classroom. In 1926 he took a position as professor at the all-black West Virginia Collegiate Institute, later West Virginia State College (today, a university). It was a dramatic change from Harvard, and even Fisk and DePauw. Julian was the entire chemistry department. There was hardly any lab equipment, and Julian had to work as janitor and storeroom keeper as well as teacher. In these unpromising circumstances, Julian continued to do research on natural organic compounds. He recreated the experiments of the Austrian chemist Ernst Späth, synthesizing nicotine and ephedrine. He was then appointed head of the chemistry department at Howard University, perhaps the most prominent black university in America.

At Howard, Julian began to show that he had a lot of business sense to go with his scientific skills. He planned and had built a new laboratory complex which cost more than $1 million. But he was still driven by the desire to make an even bigger impact in the scientific community. In 1929 he received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, which allowed him to go to the University of Vienna, the home of Ernst Späth, for a Ph.D.

4. Vienna: 1929–1931

Julian adapted easily to life in Vienna. He learned to speak German and participated in the cultural life of the city, including going to its famous opera. The Viennese were, in turn, very welcoming to him, which is slightly surprising considering that the first significant stirrings of the Nazi movement were taking place in neighboring Germany at the time. One of Julian’s fellow students, Josef Pikl, became his closest collaborator.

Julian was in Vienna to work with Späth, the world’s leading expert in synthesizing organic compounds. Julian’s work focused on the alkaloids of a plant native to Austria, corydalis cava. He completed his Ph.D. in September 1931 and published the results, “New Corydalis-Alkaloids: dTetrahydro-coposin, d-Canadin and Hydrohydrastinin,” in a German journal, listing his advisor Späth as coauthor.

Julian’s Ph.D. in chemistry was only the third to be awarded to an African American. When he finished, he returned to his position at Howard University, bringing his friend Pikl with him to work in the laboratory, with ambitions to make Howard into a top-flight research center. But Julian quickly came into conflict with administrators at Howard, which made him yearn for a change. In 1932 he and Pikl left Howard to return to DePauw University, where William Blanchard had established a state-of-the-art laboratory. There they would be free to undertake the kind of research that would establish their reputation amongst scientists.

5. Julian’s Big Breakthrough: 1932–1935

Julian and Pikl specialized in synthesizing organic compounds. Their choice of independent research topic had to be something that mattered to others who specialized in that kind of synthesis. They chose to try to synthesize physostigmine, a compound found naturally in the African Calabar bean and useful for the treatment of the eye disease glaucoma. This was an important project, so important that a later Nobel Prize winner, Robert Robinson, was actively pursuing the same synthesis.

In order to achieve a full synthesis, Julian had to document several intermediate steps along the way. Robinson, an Englishman, began publishing his results in a series of 10 papers. Julian and Pikl published their results in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. The first paper appeared in 1932 and the fifth and final one in 1935. But Robinson had already published his final account, and the results that Julian and Pikl had come up with differed considerably from Robinson’s. In their final publication they boldly stated, “We believe that the English authors are in error, that the compound they describe as ‘d,1-Eserethole’ is not the substance, and that we are describing for the first time the real d,1-Eserethole.” (Witkop, p. 16) This was bold for a comparatively young scientist confronting the authority of one of England’s most famous chemists. But Julian laid out his documentation that proved that he had indeed created a synthetic version that was identical to the natural product. He was right, and his more famous competitor was wrong.

6. Continuing Career Struggles: 1935–1936

Unfortunately for Julian, the fame he derived from his synthesis of physostigmine was not enough to guarantee him a professorship at DePauw. Julian married Anna Johnson, a Ph.D. in social work from the University of Pennsylvania, not long after he published his papers in 1935, so he now had to be concerned about making a living for his family. Blanchard tried to get him a teaching appointment, since the money that had allowed him all of the free research time was running out. But the board of trustees of the University refused, saying it was still not considered appropriate for an African American to be teaching white students. No other white college or university was prepared to accept an African American professor either.

So what could Julian do besides teach and do research in an academic laboratory? Physostigmine was not the only organic compound that had business uses. Some DePauw students who had worked in Julian’s laboratory brought his name to the attention of the Institute of Paper, a business group dedicated to improving the paper industry. The head of the Institute thought Julian’s research skills would be perfect for the industry and offered him a position as research scientist. But that offer was taken back when it was discovered that the home town of the Institute of Paper, Appleton, Wisconsin, had a law forbidding African Americans from spending the night in town. Jim Crow laws were not found solely in the states of the old Confederacy.

Julian did finally find a place in industry, however. The Glidden Paint Company had a division dedicated to finding uses for soy beans. A company vice president, W. J. O’Brian, decided that Julian’s research skills could make the Soya Division a major moneymaker for the company, so he appointed him director of the division in 1936.

7. Becoming an Industrial Chemist: 1936–1939

Julian’s research at Glidden was similar to his earlier work on physostigmine in many respects, but it differed in one crucial way. Everything that he intended to synthesize from his division had to come from compounds isolated from soybeans. Julian was to the soybean as George Washington Carver had been to the peanut: an inventor of new uses. As one chemist said: “to a large measure, he made an industry out of the simple soya bean.” (Jenkins, p. 43)

Glidden’s Soya Division created a wide variety of products during Julian’s tenure. One of the first was the development of lecithin granules, a food supplement. Another was a fire-retardant called Aerofoam, which was used widely by the navy during World War II and was given the affectionate nickname “bean soup” because of its appearance. But most of Julian’s attention was focused on isolating alkaloids like physostigmine that could be found in soybean oil. His first patent for the Glidden Company in 1940 was a process for separating sterols. An accident in one of the big soy oil storage tanks gave him an unexpected method for producing large amounts of stigmasterol, a substance he had noticed during his earlier work on Calabar beans. Using earlier techniques of separation, it took more than 1,000 pounds of soybean oil to yield 2 pounds of stigmasterol, ruining the soybean oil in the process and thus making the resulting product very expensive. With his new technique, he could produce 100 pounds of sterols per day, which suddenly made it economically reasonable to manufacture a number of useful human hormones. The most important of these was progesterone, a female sex hormone that was important in helping pregnant women avoid miscarriages.

8. Steroids from Soybeans: 1940–1953

In 1948 scientists at the Mayo clinic discovered that a compound called Kendall’s Compound E was an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. This compound was eventually renamed cortisone. Julian read about the composition of Kendall’s Compound E and realized that it was a steroid, like physostigmine and like another rare compound called Reichstein’s Compound S, which could be easily converted to cortisone. In 1948 Julian published a process for synthesizing Reichstein’s Compound S from a relatively common compound called 16-dehydropregnenolone. It immediately increased the production and reduced the price of cortisone and remains one of the most inexpensive ways of making this important chemical today.

9. Breaking Racial Barriers: 1946–1956

After World War II, U.S. society began to confront some of the symptoms of segregation. In 1947 Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play major league baseball, breaking one important barrier. In 1948 President Harry Truman ordered the end of segregated units throughout the armed forces. In 1954 the Supreme Court undid their decision in Plessy v. Ferguson with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, saying that forced segregation of schools was inherently unequal.

Percy Julian had been breaking down barriers since before the war, so he became the focus of great attention in both the black and white communities as civil rights and desegregation became more potent issues. In 1946 one of the most widely circulated magazines in the United States, Reader’s Digest, published a biography of Julian under the title “The Man Who Wouldn’t Give Up.” In 1947 he received the Spingarn Medal, the highest award for contributions to society from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the most prominent civil rights group in the country. In that same year he received the first of many honorary degrees, recognizing his contributions to science, from his old home university, DePauw. He would eventually receive honorary degrees from 18 other universities. In 1950 he was named Chicagoan of the year by the Chicago Chamber of Commerce.

But even with these markers of success, Julian still confronted obstacles. Shortly after his family moved to the Chicago suburb of Oak Park in 1950, arsonists attacked his house. There was another attack the next year. Fortunately, no one in the Julian family was hurt, and the majority of Julian’s white neighbors expressed outrage at the attacks.

At the same time, Julian was beginning to feel limited by his research for Glidden. Glidden was, after all, in the soybean business. Julian, on the other hand, was excited by the prospects of extracting and synthesizing other steroids from whatever natural source was most promising. In 1953 he left the Glidden Company on friendly terms to pursue his own research once again.

10. Julian the Entrepreneur: 1954–1961

Julian’s success with Glidden meant that he could now afford to build his own laboratory to his specifications. When he left Glidden, he founded the Julian Laboratories. He continued to work on steroid synthesis, this time focusing on products that could be derived from Mexican yams. His business was so successful that he established factories in Mexico and Guatemala to process the yams. He acquired patents at an even faster rate in Julian Laboratories than he had while working for Glidden. In 1961 he sold Julian Laboratories to the pharmaceutical company Smith, Kline, and French for more than $2 million. In a 1960 survey, he was identified as one of the richest African Americans.

Even after selling Julian Laboratories, Julian remained active as a researcher. He founded a nonprofit research center called the Julian Research Institute, where he helped train future generations of research chemists.

11. Elder Statesman in the Civil Rights Era: 1962–1975

By the 1960s, Julian was an “elder statesman” in both the chemical industry and the African American community. He was an active supporter of civil rights for African Americans but was troubled by the more strident tone of younger people. He even got into disputes with his children about how rapidly and vocally African Americans should push for equality. Even though he participated in the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in 1968, he was skeptical even of Martin Luther King’s strategy of nonviolence and dismissive of radicals like Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver.

The other side of his “elder statesman” position was the continuing string of acknowledgements from his scientific peers. In 1968 he was given the Chemical Pioneer Award, one of the highest honors for chemists. In 1973 he was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences, an honor for all scientists.

Also in his old age, Julian reflected on the relationship of science to society. Back in his days in Vienna he had become fascinated by the arts and humanities. He had always been fond of poetry, finding inspiration in a favorite poem called “The Seventh Fold” to “Take heart . . . Go farther on” in the face of obstacles. In a speech to the American Institute of Chemists in 1973, he quoted a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to remind his fellow chemists about their obligation to be concerned not only with their specializations but with “the deeper wellsprings of human destiny.”

When he died in 1975 he left a legacy of some of the most important discoveries in organic chemistry of his era. His work spanned “pure” and “applied” research in chemistry. The search for natural-product compounds to treat human illnesses remains to this day one of the most important contributions that science can make to human welfare.

References

Jenkins, E. S. “Percy L. Julian, Soybean Chemist,” in American Black Scientists and Inventors. Washington, D.C.: National Science Teachers Association, 1975.

Witkop, Bernhard. “Percy Lavon Julian, 1899–1975.” Biographical Memoirs, vol. 52. Washington, D.C.: The National Academy Press, 1980.

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