Percy Julian was a research chemist who figured out how to synthesize medicinal compounds from plant sources, making them more affordable for mass-production. His work laid the foundation for the production of cortisone and birth control pills.
Julian was born in 1899 in Montgomery, AL, in the earlier years of Jim Crow. His father, whose own father had been a slave, worked for the US Postal Service, and his mother was a teacher. Even though African American’s were often kept from receiving more than an 8th grade education, his parents prioritized the need for a higher education.
Julian attended DePauw University, which accepted very few African Americans. He wasn’t allowed to stay in the dorms, but worked out a deal where he worked for a fraternity in exchange for sleeping in their attic. He earned his BS in 1920, and was valedictorian of his class.
After earning his undergraduate degree, he became a chemistry instructor at Fisk University. In 1923, he received an Austin Fellowship in Chemistry, which allowed him to attend Harvard University to obtain his MS. But, he was denied the opportunity to earn his PhD at Harvard because the school didn’t want a black man teaching white students.
He became an instructor at West Virginia State College and then Howard University. In 1929, he received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship and moved to Austria to obtain his PhD at the University of Vienna. He was one of the first African Americans to receive a doctorate in chemistry.
When he returned to the US in 1931, Julian worked at Howard University for one year, experiencing several work-related scandals and inter-personal conflicts the entire time. He then went to teach organic chemistry at DePauw University, but was denied a professorship because of his race. This was also why he was denied a job at DuPont, despite being the best qualified.
A colleague from Vienna moved to the US, working with Julian on his first groundbreaking endeavor: the total synthesis of physostigmine (an alkaloid used to treat glaucoma.) Shortly after, Julian extracted stigmasterol, which can be converted to progesterone, the steroid and sex hormone involved in menstrual cycles, pregnancy, and embryogenesis.
In 1936, Julian had written to the Glidden Company, a supplier of soybean oil products, to request a sample in order to begin the synthesis of human sex hormones, partly because his wife was infertile. That endeavor had to be put on hold, though. Glidden Company had recently purchased an extraction facility in Germany. So, because of Julian’s expertise and ability to speak German, the company’s VP immediately hired him as the director of research at their Chicago division.
While at Glidden, Julian designed and supervised the construction of the world’s first production plant of industrial-grade, isolated soy protein, which could replace the more expensive milk casein commonly used in industrial applications in paper, glue for plywood, and water-based paints.
By 1940, he returned to his intended work of synthesizing sex hormones (progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone). His work enabled the reduction in cost of treating hormonal deficiencies, and so was instrumental in saving many lives.
In 1950, shortly after another scientist proved that cortisone could treat rheumatoid arthritis, Julian found a more cost effective way to produce a compound similar to cortisone through the conversion of pregnenolone, which was available in abundance from soybean oil sterols.
Julian’s work made important medicinal compounds less expensive and more plentiful, thereby increasing the research and knowledge of these compounds and making those medicines more readily available to the public. His ingenuity led to the development of birth control and immune system suppression medicines that are crucial in performing organ transplants.
Julian moved his family to the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. They were the first African Americans to live there, and were subject to terrible abuses. Their home was fire-bombed and later attacked with dynamite. But his new community gathered in support.
After 18 years at Glidden, Julian left to start his own company: Julian Laboratories, Inc. He hired top chemists (including African Americans and women), secured many large contracts, and had plants in Illinois, Mexico, and Guatamala. He sold the company for more than $2 million in 1961.
Julian held more than 100 chemical patents. After he sold his company, he formed Julian Research Institute, a nonprofit research organization. In 1967, he was appointed to the DePauw University Board of Trustees – one of the institutions that would not initially hire him because of his race. And, in 1973, he became the first African American chemist elected to the National Academy of Sciences (and the second African American scientist inducted from any field.)