Percy Julian
Percy Julian Credit: <i>Nova</i>

You know the story of the brilliant chemist Percy Julian, right? The Alabama-born grandson of a man who’d had fingers amputated as punishment for learning to read and write while enslaved, his discoveries led to everything from water-based paint and a treatment for glaucoma, to firefighting foam that saved numerous lives in World War II. If you’ve used a birth control pill for family planning, you’ve benefited from his work. There’s a high school named for him in Chicago, and a middle school in Oak Park, so his remarkable life should be familiar, but on the chance that it’s not—as it wasn’t for me or most folks I asked—PBS is offering a free stream of Forgotten Genius, its 2007 Nova documentary about Julian, through the month of February. It’s directed by Llewellyn M. Smith and stars Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Julian, using a dramatized framework that has Julian recounting his own life.

His story of success in an environment designed to defeat him is the American Dream on steroids. Which, by the way, in their synthetic form, he also gave us.      

Percy Lavon Julian was born in 1899, to a family passionate about education. But in the early 20th century Jim Crow south, public schools for Black youngsters ended with the eighth grade. In 1916, when he entered Indiana’s DePauw University—the only Black student there—he had to take simultaneous high school courses to catch up with his better-prepared classmates. By graduation, he was valedictorian.    

Although he went on to earn a master’s degree at Harvard, none of the prestigious American graduate schools would accept him as a PhD candidate. With the help of a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship he enrolled at the University of Vienna in 1929. There, he worked on the synthesis of plant compounds, found much broader freedom than he’d known in America, and, in 1931, with a thesis written in German, earned his doctorate. He returned to the U.S. with a friend and colleague, Josef Pikl, who became a long-term collaborator.

No career positions in academia were awaiting, however. In 1935, while working as mere lab instructors and research fellows at DePauw, Julian and Pikl became famous in their field. They solved a high-profile problem: how to make a synthetic and affordable version of a prohibitively expensive natural chemical (physostigmine) used to treat glaucoma. Their published paper, with Julian as lead author, refuted the work of an internationally known and respected chemist, setting off an academic furor.

More than a half-century later, this discovery, which staved off blindness for masses of glaucoma sufferers, would be recognized by the American Chemical Society as one of the 25 greatest chemical research accomplishments in the nation’s history.  

Still unable to land a job as a professor, Julian turned to industry, which wasn’t much more welcoming. When both he and Pikl were invited to DuPont for interviews, Pikl was hired, while Julian was told, “We didn’t know you were a Negro.” An offer of a research job with the Institute of Paper Chemistry was stymied by the discovery that in Appleton, Wisconsin, where the Institute was located, it was illegal for Black people to be in town overnight. Finally, in 1936, the Glidden Company hired Julian as director of research for its new soybean division, and he came to Chicago.  

At Glidden, Julian found a way to produce huge volumes of soy protein and his lab created uses for it in the manufacture of everything from paint to pet food to plastic. He also discovered a way to produce synthetic versions of the human sex hormones progesterone and testosterone from soybeans. And in the early 1950s, he developed a process that made it possible to mass produce cortisone from soybeans (and yams), making this “miracle drug” widely available and affordable for the first time to sufferers from arthritis and other inflammatory ailments. In 1953, after Glidden decided to get out of the steroid business, Julian went out on his own, establishing Julian Laboratories in Franklin Park, where he could continue to work on steroids and other medicines. He provided a springboard for young Black chemists there, and made a personal fortune when he sold it, in 1961, to the company now known as GlaxoSmithKline.  

In 1935, the same year as his glaucoma drug breakthrough, Julian married Anna Roselle Johnson, then a graduate student on her way to becoming the first Black woman in America to earn a PhD in sociology. Their first Chicago-area home was in Maywood but, in 1950, when their family included a son and daughter, they purchased a larger home in Oak Park. Racists greeted them with an arson attack on the house before they moved in and a firebomb afterward. In the documentary, Percy Julian Jr. recalls that in the aftermath of the firebomb, he got some bonus time with his usually busy father, standing guard in the yard at night.

The attacks only strengthened the family’s resolve to stay. (To leave, Julian wrote later, “would have been cowardly and wrong.”) And their daughter, Faith Julian, still lives there. She told me last week that she thinks her father, who had more than 100 patents and, in 1973, became the second African American and first chemist elected to the National Academy of Sciences, might have also been a Nobel laureate if it weren’t for the racism of the time. “I think the things he did were so noteworthy, he really deserved [it],” she said, “but that was going to be an impossibility, for a Black man in that day. Had his skin been white it would have been a whole different story for him. He would have received all the accolades he deserved, and the roadblocks wouldn’t have been there. All the obstacles that he met along the way, all the racism—that would have been nonexistent.”

Percy Julian died of cancer in 1975. In 1980, DePauw University, which back in the day wouldn’t hire a Black man as a professor, named its Julian Science and Mathematics Center for him.  v