Percy Lavon Julian was an American research chemist and a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants.
Dr. Percy Lavon Julian was a trailblazing chemist whose discoveries improved and saved countless lives. He grew up at a time when African Americans faced extraordinary obstacles. Yet Julian refused to let racism prevent him from becoming one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century, as well as a leader in business and civil rights.
He became the first African American to earn a master’s degree in chemistry from Harvard University.
He also enrolled in the University of Vienna, and in 1931 he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry, the fourth African American to achieve this distinction. It was in Vienna that he experienced a new sense of freedom, accessing layers of society unavailable in the United States. It was here that Julian also began his lifelong inquiry into the chemistry of plants.
Returning to DePauw University as a research fellow, Julian eventually became an expert in synthesis, the process of turning one substance into another through a series of planned chemical reactions. Synthesis was the highest calling for a chemist in the 1930s. In 1935, Julian and a colleague synthesized physostigmine, a plant compound from Calabar beans, and won a high-stakes, high-profile scientific victory over the “dean” of chemistry, Sir Robert Robinson. Their achievement led to physostigmine being widely used as a treatment for glaucoma. In fact, in 1999, the American Chemical Society recognized their work as a National Historic Chemical Landmark, one of the top 25 accomplishments in American chemical history. In addition, numerous undergraduates trained by Julian were published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society which was an unheard of occurrence at the time.
In 1953, Julian established Julian Laboratories to produce synthetic steroids, which pharmaceutical companies used to make drugs. He proved to be as talented an entrepreneur as he was a chemist. Julian’s company flourished, making him a millionaire when he sold it in 1961. By the 1970s, Julian had more than 100 patents to his name and was widely recognized as an innovator who had helped make a range of medicines more affordable. He also was a prominent civic and civil rights leader, raising funds and speaking publicly for racial justice and full equality for all Americans. Perhaps his greatest contribution was breaking the color barrier in American industrial science: Julian’s labs were the training grounds for dozens of promising young African American chemists. For his contributions to humanity, Julian received 18 honorary degrees and more than a dozen civic and scientific awards.
He was the second African American to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the first chemist.
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