Scientist Overcame Discrimination to Revolutionize Treatment of Glaucoma and Arthritis
Like many African Americans of his generation, Percy Lavon Julian is little known by name yet lives on through his legacy.
He revolutionized the treatment of glaucoma and arthritis, making drugs that once cost hundreds of dollars per drop available for a few cents per gram. He figured out ways to use soybeans for everything from food to fire extinguishers. His face graces a postal stamp and his work on physostigmine in treating glaucoma has been declared a national historic chemical landmark by the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society.
These achievements are all the more remarkable given the circumstances of Julian's life. Born in 1899 in Montgomery, Ala., he was barred from the college preparatory program in the public high school. Nonetheless, Julian gained admittance to DePauw University in Indiana, a predominantly white school that accepted African American students. As he left the family home to pursue his ambition to become a chemist, his grandfather, a former slave, waved goodbye with a three-fingered hand - the two missing fingers had been severed as punishment for learning to read.
Julian worked his way through DePauw by digging ditches and waiting tables at a fraternity and in 1920, he graduated at the top of his class with a Phi Beta Kappa key. Eager to earn an advanced degree, his professors discouraged him, saying he would have great difficulty in pursuing his profession.
After graduation, Julian joined the faculty of Nashville's historically black Fisk University. Later he moved to Massachusetts and enrolled in Harvard University, where he earned his master's degree in 1923. Denied the teaching fellowship that customarily led to a doctorate at Harvard, he received a Rockefeller Grant and enrolled at the University of Vienna in Austria where he received his Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1929.
Returning to the United States in 1931, he taught at Howard University in Washington, DC, another historically black school, then returned to his alma mater, DePauw, where he completed his landmark work on the drug physostigmine in 1935. Physostigmine was used to preserve sight by lessening the build-up of pressure caused by glaucoma, and it had only been available from its natural source, the Calabar bean.
Though the achievement earned Julian worldwide acclaim, DePauw declined to appoint him to its faculty. Disgusted, he left academia and joined the Glidden Company in Chicago (today best known for its paints) as head of its soy products division. Julian used his knowledge of chemistry to make a wide variety of products from soybeans, including sex hormones, other steroids, and foams to extinguish oil and gas fires. In 1948, he developed a new way to synthesize the hydrocortisone used to treat rheumatoid arthritis - the method most widely used to this day. By the time he died in 1975, his research had resulted in more than 160 separate patents.
As one of his tributes, the U.S. Postal Service recognized his contributions to science and issued a 29-cent Percy Julian stamp in 1993. The Julian stamp was part of a black heritage series that also recognized W.E.B. DuBois, Sojourner Truth, Jackie Robinson, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The American Chemical Society, of which Julian was a member, honored his synthesis of physostigmine by designating it a National Historic Chemical Landmark. This ACS program honors milestones in the history of chemistry and Julian was honored in ceremonies at DePauw on April 23, 1999.
The ACS encourages African American and other minority students to study chemistry through the ACS Scholars program. Since its inception in 1995, the program has provided more than 750 students with scholarships of up to $2500 per year. Scholarship applications for the 2000-2001 year are now being accepted through March 1. For more information contact the Society, toll-free at 1-800-227-5558, ext. 6250, or visit the ACS website at www.acs.org/minorityaffairs. Further information about Julian and the ACS Landmark program is available at http://tungsten.acs.org:80/landmarks/julian/index.html