This post will focus on the incredible life of Dr. Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975), an African-American chemist whose groundbreaking work with steroids allowed them to be mass-produced cheaper and developed hundreds of treatments and new technologies. Julian was born the son of a railway clerk and the grandson of enslaved people in Montgomery, Alabama, As such, he faced extreme discrimination and challenges in all aspects of his life, especially in his education. Against all odds, he was accepted and graduated as the valedictorian of DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. From there, he was awarded an Austin Fellowship to Harvard University where he furthered his education in chemistry. However, due to his race, he was not allowed to pursue a doctorate at Harvard, so he traveled to the University of Vienna in Austria in order to complete his doctorate and continue his research.
It was at the University of Vienna where Julian really dove into the chemistry of plants as well as synthesis, a passion that would lead to many groundbreaking discoveries. After being granted his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna, Julian returned to DePauw University as a research fellow where he made his first of many significant breakthroughs using synthesis. He and a fellow Viennese colleague synthesized physostigmine, a compound from Calabar beans that is vital in treating glaucoma. Since chemical synthesis (the process of turning one substance into another through a series of planned chemical reactions) was the most popular topic in chemistry, Julian was hurtled to the top of the science world. In fact, in 1999, the American Chemical Society denoted their work as a “National Historic Chemical Landmark.” Despite this revolutionary breakthrough that helped many people, DePauw University refused to make Julian a permanent faculty member due to his race. Julian quickly became frustrated with the world of academics and instead became the director of research at the Glidden Company.
It was at the Glidden Company where Julian made his most significant discoveries through soybeans. While researching how to synthesize Progesterone, a female sex hormone that is important in preventing miscarriages in pregnancies, Julian discovered that water had leaked into a vat of purified soybean oil and had produced a white mass. Julian quickly identified this white mass as stigmasterol, a compound that is extremely important for synthesizing progesterone, and realized he had discovered a way to cheaply mass-produce progesterone. This dramatically reduced the price of this important hormone and made it much more accessible to people all over the world. This was not the only amazing work that Julian did with soybeans, among his other achievements, he discovered a way to cheaply produce synthetic cortisone, a “miracle” drug that had significant effects on rheumatoid arthritis. Before Julian’s research, this drug was extremely expensive and therefore inaccessible to some people. Julian’s synthetic cortisone alleviated the pain and suffering of people all over the world. Julian did not only discover ways to synthesize steroids while at Glidden. For example, a protein he extracted from soybeans was used to produce a fire-retardant foam that saved thousands of lives in World War II.
In 1954, Julian left Glidden in order to start his own company called Julian Laboratories which cheaply produced steroids to sell to pharmaceutical companies. Julian was found to be as capable an entrepreneur as a scientist, making millions from selling his company. Despite Julian being named “Chicagoan of the year” and his incredible achievements, he faced significant discrimination both in his professional and personal life, having his home firebombed and being repeatedly held back from the best resources. Despite all of this, Julian left a tremendous legacy of groundbreaking work that allowed for the cheap production of medicine and a legacy as the man who broke the color barrier into American industrial science. At the time of his death, Julian had more than 100 patents to his name, 18 honorary degrees, and more than a dozen science and civic awards.