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NOVA documentary honors pioneering African American chemist Percy Julian

American Chemical Society


IMAGE: Pioneering chemist Percy Julian subject of upcoming NOVA documentary. view more

Credit: (Photo courtesy of Chemical Heritage Foundation)

The American Chemical Society is hosting a symposium honoring pioneering African American chemist Percy Julian, Ph.D., at its 232nd National Meeting in San Francisco on Sept. 11. The symposium is part of the celebration of Julian, whose life story is the subject of a two-hour PBS/NOVA documentary scheduled to be broadcast on Feb. 6, 2007, during Black History month.

One of the sessions at the symposium -- "Dr. Percy L. Julian - Scientist, Humanist, Educator, Entrepreneur, and Inspirational Trailblazer" -- will offer a sneak preview of the documentary, which is entitled, "Forgotten Genius," written and produced by Llewellyn Smith, writer/producer/director of Vital Pictures, Inc.; Steve Lyons, writer/producer of Moreno, Lyons Productions LLC; and Melanie Wallace, senior series producer, NOVA/WGBH.

"Forgotten Genius" is, according to Smith, "a first time portrait of this remarkable American chemist... The NOVA documentary brings to the public the forgotten achievements of this 20th century scientist." The film is part of NOVA's Lives in Science series.

Percy Lavon Julian was born in Montgomery, Ala., on April 11, 1899. The son of a railway clerk and the grandson of slaves, his early schooling was spotty in the segregated South of the early 20th century. Even so, he was accepted as a freshman at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., at the age of 17; he graduated first in his class in 1920. He then taught for two years at Fisk University before enrolling in a Master's program at Harvard.

In 1929, a Rockefeller Foundation grant enabled Julian to study natural products chemistry at the University of Vienna, where he received his Ph.D. In 1933, he returned to DePauw as a research fellow where he conducted research that led to the synthesis of physostigmine, a drug used in the treatment of glaucoma. This discovery was commemorated by the American Chemical Society as a National Historic Chemical Landmark in 1999 (

Denied a faculty position at DePauw, Julian turned to industry, accepting a position as director of research for the Soya Products Division at the Glidden Co. in Chicago. Over the next 18 years, his research produced numerous patents and successful products for Glidden, including a paper coating and a fire-retardant foam used widely during World War II to extinguish gasoline fires. His biomedical research made it possible to produce large quantities of synthetic hydrocortisone and progesterone at low cost.

In 1953, he established Julian Laboratories, which he sold eight years later for $2 million dollars. In 1973, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Julian died on April 19, 1975.


The American Chemical Society -- the world's largest scientific society -- is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

-- Judah Ginsberg

The paper, CMA 010, will be presented by Llewellyn Smith on Monday, Sept. 11, 3:30 p.m., at the Hilton San Francisco, Yosemite A, during the symposium, "Dr. Percy L. Julian - Scientist, Humanist, Educator, Entrepreneur, and Inspirational Trailblazer."

Llewellyn Smith is a writer/producer/director at Vital Pictures, Inc., in Allston, Mass.

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