Washington, DC -- The world's largest scientific society, the American Chemical Society, will designate the research of African-American scientist Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975) a National Historic Chemical Landmark. Julian was the first to make the anti-glaucoma drug physostigmine synthetically, a necessary step to making the drug widely available. A plaque honoring his work will be presented to DePauw University, where Julian was a research fellow, on April 23 during a celebration marking his 100th birthday.
Physostigmine promotes drainage of fluid build-up in the eye, which would otherwise lead to the optic nerve damage and loss of vision that characterizes glaucoma. Derivatives of physostigmine also show therapeutic promise for treating Alzheimer's disease and combating the effects of chemical weapons.
It took Julian and his assistant Josef Pikl three years to complete their synthesis, called the most challenging total synthesis of its time. Previously, physostigmine could only be isolated from the Calabar bean. The three-year project was completed in 1935 and reported in a series of papers in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
The discovery of how to synthesize physostigmine established Julian's reputation as a world-renowned chemist at the age of 36 yet he was denied a faculty position at DePauw because of his race. Frustrated in his efforts to gain an academic post, Julian accepted an offer as director of research for soya products for Glidden in Chicago. Over the next 18 years, the results of his soybean protein research produced numerous patents and successful products for Glidden, among them, a paper coating and a fire retardant foam used widely in WWII to extinguish gasoline fires. In the biomedical area, Julian's research made it possible to produce large quantities of synthetic progesterone and hydrocortisone at low cost.
In 1953, he established the Julian Laboratories, a successful enterprise that he sold for more than $2 million in 1961. He later formed the Julian Research Institute, a nonprofit research organization. Among his many lifetime honors was election, in 1973, to the National Academy of Sciences. He also was recognized widely as a steadfast advocate for human rights. Julian continued his private research studies and served as a consultant to the major pharmaceutical companies until his death on April 19, 1975.
Julian was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated with a B.A. degree from DePauw University in 1920. He then taught chemistry at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. After two years at Fisk, he won an Austin Fellowship to Harvard University where he received his M.A. degree in 1923. He served on the staff of two predominately black institutions: West Virginia State College, and Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he was head of the chemistry department in 1928. In 1929 he received a Rockefeller Foundation grant and the opportunity to earn his doctorate in chemistry. He earned his Ph.D. in 1931 from the University of Vienna where he met Josef Pikl.
The inscription on the plaque to be presented by ACS past president Helen M. Free to DePauw University President Robert G. Bottoms reads:
In 1935, in Minshall Laboratory, DePauw alumnus Percy L. Julian (1899-1975) first synthesized the drug physostigmine, previously only available from its natural source, the Calabar bean. His pioneering research led to the process that made physostigmine readily available for the treatment of glaucoma. It was the first of Julian's lifetime of achievements in the chemical synthesis of commercially important natural products.
A nonprofit organization with a membership of nearly 159,000 chemists and chemical engineers, the American Chemical Society publishes scientific journals and databases, convenes major research conferences, and provides educational, science policy and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.