Racial segregation prevented Percy Lavon Julian from studying science at school; instead, he learned by reading books.
Percy Lavon Julian was born in 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama, the grandson of former slaves. His parents were keen for him to get a good education, but the segregated school system in their home town did not offer places to African-American students beyond the eighth grade. Julian got a place at a nearby school for African-Americans, but it mostly taught practical skills like blacksmithing and hat making, and did not offer any science courses. Instead, he learnt about science by reading books, from his father’s library and elsewhere, and soon after, he decided he wanted to be a chemist. His parents were less convinced – they wanted him to become a doctor because there were jobs for African-Americans in the segregated hospitals, but jobs in chemistry were limited to all-white institutions. Nonetheless, Julian was persistent and with the help of a schoolteacher he won a place to study chemistry at DePauw University, Indiana.
University was difficult for Julian. His low standard of education meant he was well behind the other students, and had to take special classes and evening lessons for two years. Additionally, he was denied college accommodation because of his race and had to take jobs as a waiter (and occasionally ditch-digger) to pay for his room in the attic of a fraternity house.
Despite these disadvantages, Julian studied hard and, in 1920, graduated top of his class. His next ambition was to go to graduate school, but many universities denied him a place because of his race and he instead took a teaching job at an African-American college in Tennessee. It took two years for one of his teachers at DePauw to persuade Harvard to admit him to their graduate school, but once he began the programme he excelled and graduated with a Master’s degree after just one year. He wanted to stay at Harvard to do a PhD, but again he was rejected because of his race.
He became a professor of chemistry at a poor college for African-Americans in West Virginia. Despite the very limited lab facilities, he was able to practise his love of research by recreating the natural product synthesis work of Austrian chemist Ernst Späth. He moved soon after, to the better-equipped labs of Howard University in Washington, D.C., and it was there that he received the offer he had been waiting for – a place to study for a PhD under Späth at the University of Vienna, Austria.
Julian found his time in Vienna very liberating, away from the repressive racial biases of America. His research on natural products was successful and in 1931, he obtained his PhD in chemistry, becoming only the third African-American to do so. He returned to America, and together with his collaborator from Vienna, Joseph Pikl, began his research on steroids which would occupy him for most of his life.
Working again at DePauw, Julian and Pikl studied the natural product physostigmine. This compound was known to be an effective treatment for glaucoma, but the only source for physostigmine was the difficult-to-grow Calabar bean from West Africa. This made the remedy too expensive for most people to use, but if a chemical synthesis could be devised ,then the drug could become much more widely available.
Julian was not the only chemist to have spotted this synthetic target – he was in a race with the famous chemist Robert Robinson, a future Nobel Prize winner. When Robinson published his synthesis of physostigmine, it seemed like he had won the race, but closer analysis revealed that he had made the wrong compound! Julian published his correct synthesis in 1935, and attracted a lot of attention from chemists around the world. Much later, the American Chemical Society would recognise his synthesis of physostigmine as one of the top 25 achievements in the history of American chemistry.
Move to industry
Despite his achievement, he was denied promotion at DePauw, who would not appoint an African-American professor. By this time, he was married and wanted a secure job to support a family; the repeated rejections of academia were frustrating. Instead, he looked for a job in the chemical industry and was recruited by the paint company Glidden. His job at Glidden was to carry out research on soybeans and find uses for the compounds they produced. He was very successful, discovering lecithin (which can keep chocolate smooth), a fire-retardant chemical that was used on US Navy ships in World War II, and many oils for paints, salad dressings, and glues.
A few years later, a laboratory accident united Julian’s earlier research on steroids with his job at Glidden; water had seeped into a 100,000-gallon tank of soybean oil, and a large mass of white solid had been deposited at the bottom. He immediately recognised that this white mass contained a large percentage of plant sterols. With a few chemical modifications, these sterols could be converted into pure and cheap sex hormones for medical uses which at that time would cost hundreds of dollars per gram.
As director of the soybean laboratory at Glidden, Julian became the first African-American to head a research laboratory at a major chemical company. He was, however, not wholly welcomed to Chicago; he and his family moved to Oak Park, a prosperous (and universally white) district in 1950, and despite some supportive neighbours his house was firebombed twice in two years.
After 17 years at Glidden, Julian set up his own chemical company so he could follow his own research interests. Julian Laboratories researched natural products from the Mexican yam plant, and was very successful in creating medicines from this cheap starting material. He sold his company for $2 million in 1961 and created the Julian Research Institute, a non-profit organisation dedicated to training young research chemists. His successes as a chemist were recognised in his lifetime with many awards, including 19 honorary degrees, election to the National Academy of Sciences, being named Chicago Man of the Year, and the issuing of a postage stamp in his honour.
Reflecting on his career after retirement, Julian said:
"I feel that my own good country robbed me of the chance for some of the great experiences that I would have liked to live through. Instead, I took a job where I could get one and tried to make the best of it. I have been, perhaps, a good chemist, but not the chemist that I dreamed of being."
Words by Stephen McCarthy
Thumbnail and main picture © Photo Researchers/Mary Evans Picture Library
Published June 2014