pioneering chemist as a man utterly in his elements
Percy Lavon Julian - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: Percy Lavon Julian (April 11, 1899 – April 19, 1975) was an American research chemist and a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants. He was the first to synthesize the natural product physostigmine, and a pioneer in the industrial large-scale chemical synthesis of the human hormones progesterone and testosterone from plant sterols such as stigmasterol and sitosterol. His work laid the foundation for the steroid drug industry's production of cortisone, other corticosteroids, and birth control pills.
He later started his own company to synthesize steroid intermediates from the Mexican wild yam. His work helped greatly reduce the cost of steroid intermediates to large multinational pharmaceutical companies, helping to significantly expand the use of several important drugs.
Julian received more than 130 chemical patents. He was one of the first African-Americans to receive a doctorate in chemistry. He was the first African-American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, and the second African-American scientist inducted (behind David Blackwell) from any field.
Percy Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama as the first child of six born to James Sumner Julian and Elizabeth Lena Julian, née Adams. Both of his parents were graduates of what was to be Alabama State University. His father, James, whose own father had been a slave, was employed as a clerk in the Railway Service of the United States Post Office, while his mother, Elizabeth, worked as a schoolteacher. Percy Julian grew up in the time of racist Jim Crow culture and legal regime in the southern United States. Among his childhood memories was finding a lynched man hanged from a tree while walking in the woods near his home. At a time when access to an education beyond the eighth grade was extremely rare for African-Americans, Julian's parents steered all of their children toward higher education.
Julian attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. The college accepted few African-American students. The segregated nature of the town forced social humiliations. Julian graduated from DePauw in 1920 as a Phi Beta Kappa and valedictorian.
After graduating from DePauw, Julian wanted to obtain his doctorate in chemistry, but learned it would be difficult for an African-American to do so. Instead he obtained a position as 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 M.S. However, worried that Euro-American students would resent being taught by an African-American, Harvard withdrew Julian's teaching assistantship, making it impossible for him to complete his Ph.D. at Harvard.
In 1929, while an instructor at Howard University, Julian received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to continue his graduate work at the University of Vienna, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1931. He studied under Ernst Späth and was considered an impressive student. In Europe, he found freedom from the racial prejudices that had stifled him in the States. He freely participated in intellectual social gatherings, went to the opera and found greater acceptance among his peers. Julian was one of the first African-Americans to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry, after St. Elmo Brady and Edward M. A. Chandler.
At Howard, Julian became involved in university politics, setting off an embarrassing chain of events. At the university president's request, he goaded a white chemist named Jacob Shohan into resigning. Shohan retaliated by releasing to the local African-American newspaper the letters Julian had written to him from Vienna. The letters contained accounts of Julian's sex life and criticism of individual Howard faculty members. Then Julian's laboratory assistant, Robert Thompson, charged he had discovered his wife together with Julian in a sexual tryst. When Thompson was fired for filing a lawsuit against the University, he too gave the paper racy letters which Julian had written to him from Vienna. Through the summer of 1932, the Baltimore Afro-American published all of Julian's letters. Eventually, the scandal and accompanying pressure forced Julian to resign. He lost his position and everything he had worked for.
At the lowest point in Julian's career, his former mentor, William Blanchard, threw him a much-needed lifeline. Blanchard offered Julian a position to teach organic chemistry at DePauw University in 1932. Julian then helped Josef Pikl, a fellow student at the University of Vienna, to come to the United States to work with him at DePauw. In 1935 Julian and Pikl completed the total synthesis of physostigmine and confirmed the structural formula assigned to it.
Circa 1950, Julian moved his family to the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, becoming the first African-American family to reside there. Although some residents welcomed them into the community, there was also a slight opposition. Before they even moved in, on Thanksgiving Day, 1950, their home was fire-bombed. Later, after they moved in, the house was attacked with dynamite on June 12, 1951. The attacks galvanized the community, and a community group was formed to support the Julians. Julian's son later recounted that during these times, he and his father often kept watch over the family's property by sitting in a tree with a shotgun.