As the inventor of synthetic cortisone, fire-extinguishing Aero-Foam, and drugs to treat glaucoma, Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975) made life-enhancing and life-saving products more affordable. Despite facing racial prejudice and segregation at nearly every step of his career, Julian became the first African American to be named director of research at a white-owned firm, and he eventually founded his own Julian Laboratories and Julian Research Institute, where he continued as director until his death.
Percy Lavon Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on April 11, 1899; his father was a railway mail clerk, and his grandfather had been a slave. He credited his strict father with providing the discipline and high standards necessary to his success. Reader's Digest reported that when as a young boy Julian proudly brought home a math test with a grade of 80, his father responded, "A son of mine must not be satisfied with mediocrity. After this make it 100!"
As a teenager, Julian moved with his family to Green-castle, Indiana, home of DePauw University. All six of the Julian children, including Percy, studied there. Although he was required to enter the university as a "sub-freshman, " in 1920 he graduated Phi Beta Kappa, as class valedictorian. He hoped to continue his education and become a research scientist in the field of organic chemistry, but his mentors dissuaded him. Although one of his chemistry professors made inquiries to graduate schools on Julian's behalf, they all replied negatively. "Discourage your bright young colored lad, " one school advised. "We couldn't get him a job when he was done, and it'll only mean frustration. Why don't you find him a teaching job in a Negro college in the South? He doesn't need a Ph.D. for that."
Despite his father's suggestion that he go into medicine, where he could be more independent, Julian persisted in chemistry. He went to Fisk University in Nashville, a school for African Americans, where he taught until 1923. The talent of his students encouraged him to pursue his own dream, and he applied for a research fellowship at Harvard. He earned his Master's degree in a year, finishing in the top group of his class. Had he been white, Harvard would have rewarded him with a post as a teaching assistant, but, as they explained to Julian, they feared that white students from the South would not accept him as a teacher. He stayed at Harvard on minor research fellowships, then returned to the South to teach at all-black schools West Virginia State College and Howard University, where after one year he was appointed head of the chemistry department.
Julian's research at Harvard served him well later. He had begun to repeat the experiments of the Austrian chemist Ernst Spth, who had learned to synthesize chemicals such as nicotine and ephedrine-rather than studying these compounds as they appeared in nature, Julian experimented on making these chemicals himself. With the financial backing of a wealthy Harvard classmate, he went to Vienna to study with Spth. Spth welcomed Julian into his household, initiating a father-son relationship and working closely together on synthesizing a variety of naturally occurring chemicals. Through his work with Spth, Julian received his Ph.D. at the University of Vienna in 1931. With his Ph.D., he returned to Howard, and then went again to DePauw, where he both taught and researched, but was denied the title of professor because of his race.
Although he would make one of his most important discoveries at this time, Julian's students remembered him as a committed teacher. Chemist J. Wayne Cole recalled in Ebony magazine, "He was obviously involved in his laboratory work but was essentially an instructor-first and foremost. It was the shaping of the student that appealed to him the most. And believe me, he never tolerated laziness or disinterestedness."
While carrying his teaching load, Julian pursued the problem of synthesizing physostigmine, a chemical known to help in the treatment of glaucoma. Despite years of effort, chemists had not been able to make the chemical in the laboratory. With fundraising help from his former professor Dean William Blanchard, Julian's research progressed rapidly and attracted international attention as he reported his findings in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. When he finally succeeded, he was universally acknowledged as leader in the field of chemistry. Dean Blanchard moved to appoint Julian as the head of DePauw's chemistry department, to make Julian the first professor of chemistry at any traditionally white university in America, and to make DePauw, as Reader's Digest reported, "a chemical Mecca." Blanchard's colleagues refused, calling the appointment "inadvisable."
With his academic career apparently at a dead-end, Julian received a timely invitation from Chicago's Glidden Company to direct soybean research. While there, he developed a process for isolating and preparing soya protein, which led to a number of important inventions. Among the most highly praised was his "bean soup, " commercially known as Aero-Foam, which the Navy used during wartime to put out fires; he also developed a soy protein for coating paper at a fraction of the cost of the previously used milk casein.
Even more important was his discovery of a technique by which he could mass-produce the hormones testosterone and progesterone. Testosterone was then touted as an anti-aging drug for men, while progesterone helped prevent spontaneous abortion in pregnant mothers. While these hormones were available in nature, they were difficult to get, with the supply limited to the brains and spines of cattle that had been slaughtered. Although German chemists had extracted hormones from soybean oil, the technique they used was expensive and could not provide them in commercial quantities. Julian discovered away to make the oil porous, enabling chemists to create mass quantities of the hormones.
The invention of Compound S, however, is considered Julian's biggest scientific achievement. Natural cortisone was a recognized treatment for rheumatoid arthritis and other illnesses causing muscle pain; to get it, however, the bile from nearly 15, 000 oxen would be required to treat a single patient for a year. The limited supply of cortisone made it impractical as a treatment option. Again using soybean oils, Julian created a drug-Compound S-that could mimic the effects of natural cortisone in the body. His synthesized cortisone resembled natural cortisone in every way, except that it lacked an oxygen atom in a crucial position. Because the body itself could replace that atom when the drug was used, the therapeutic result was the same. Julian's discovery made the benefits of cortisone economically feasible for all patients.
Julian patented these and nearly 130 other chemical innovations, enabling him to earn make a living much larger than that available to most blacks. In 1950, shortly after he had been named "Chicagoan of the Year" in a Chicago Sun-Times poll, Julian moved into the white, middle-class suburb of Oak Park, Illinois. He purchased an ornate, 15-room house and planned extensive landscaping and improvements, but even before he and his family moved in, they received threats and were the victims of an attempted arson. The water commissioner refused to turn on their water, until the family threatened to go to court. Julian was compelled to hire a private guard to patrol the property 24 hours a day. He told Time, "We've lived through these things all our lives. As far as the hurt to the spirit goes, we've become accustomed to that."
Julian continued to confront racism in his professional life as well. In 1951, when the Research Corporation of New York City invited Julian, along with 34 other scientists, to hear a talk at the Union League Club of Chicago, the club's manager contacted the organization and informed them that Julian would not be permitted to enter the building. The New York Times reported that the club's directors had issued "explicit instructions" forbidding Julian's attendance. By 1956, he had become more actively involved in opposing racial injustice. He became the first black man to chair the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches' Council for Social Action. The council voted to raise litigation funds for a delegate who had been refused admission to an American Legion Post, and, according to the New York Times, called on members to "support nonsegregated practices in selling, buying, and leasing property."
In 1967, Julian and North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company president Asa Spaulding organized a group of 47 wealthy business persons and professionals to raise money for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The group, calling itself the National Negro Business and Professional Committee for the Legal Defense Fund, announced in the New York Times, "This means the Negro millionaire is coming of age and taking a responsible place in the community." The committee planned to raise $1 million a year for cases involving voting rights, school desegregation, and job discrimination. Julian had been connected with the NAACP since 1947, when he won their Spingarn Medal Award.
Julian's financial success also enabled him to leave Glidden in 1953 and found Julian Laboratories. In addition to his suburban Chicago laboratory, he established subsidiaries in Mexico and Guatemala, which studied the possible medical benefits of the Mexican yam. These pharmaceutical businesses were so successful that eventually Julian, approaching his mid-60s, found the pressure to be too much, and in 1961 he sold them for nearly $2.4 million. In 1964, he retired as president from Julian Laboratories, then became director of Julian Research Institute and president of Julian Associates.
In 1974, Julian became increasingly ill, and was diagnosed with cancer of the liver. Despite a lack of energy and a difficult schedule of treatment, Julian continued to work and give speeches. In November of that year, he was honored by Sigma Xi, a society of research scientists, with the Procter Prize for extraordinary service to science and humanity. As Ebony reported, in his acceptance speech he discussed the benefits and drawbacks of scientific advancements: "Many of these successes have been abused, he acknowledged, while others have been the subjects of material applications having little implication for the enrichment of the spirit; man has treasured them as weapons or employed them as gadgets." Despite this, he said, he "shares the humanistic faith in an ordered, purposeful and meaningful reality."
Shortly before his death, Julian announced that he was satisfied with his life's work. "I have had one goal in my life, " he said, "that of playing some role in making life a little easier for the persons who come after me." He died in April of 1975. In addition to many academic honors and citations he received during his lifetime, he was honored in 1993 by the U.S. Postal Service with a postage stamp in the Black Heritage Series. He was also honored by the city of Oak Park, Illinois, which named a middle school after one of its first residents.
Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 6, Gale, 1994.
Ebony, March 1975.
Jet, June 3, 1985; January 29, 1990.
New York Times, January 18, 1950; July 19, 1951; June 28, 1956; March 20, 1967; April 21, 1975.
Reader's Digest, August, 1946.
Stamps, February 13, 1993.
Time, December 4, 1950.
"Percy Julian School, " http://kato.TheRamp.net/julian/bio.html (March 20, 1998).