Percy L. Julian
(Academic, Civil Rights Activist, Chemist, Scientist)
Born April 11, 1899, in Montgomery, AL; died of cancer, 1975; son of James S. (a railway mail clerk) and Elizabeth Lena (Adams) Julian; married Anna Johnson (a sociologist), December 24, 1935; children: Percy Lavon, Jr., Faith Roselle, Rhoderic Education: DePauw University, B.A, 1920; Harvard University, M.A., 1923; University of Vienna, Ph.D., 1931.
Known as the “soybean chemist” for his extraordinary success in synthesizing innovative drugs and industrial chemicals from natural soya products, Percy Lavon Julian was an internationally acclaimed scientist whose discoveries earned him more than 130 chemical patents and a host of professional awards. Among his most important contributions were the creation of a synthetic version of cortisone, a drug used to relieve the pain and inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis, and physostigmine, prescribed to alleviate the effects of glaucoma—a disease of the eye that can cause blindness if left untreated. Julian’s work with soybeans and soya derivatives also led to the mass production of the male and female hormones testosterone and progesterone and the development of a powerful firefighting chemical called Aero-Foam, used by the U.S. Navy during World War II. The first African American to direct a modern industrial laboratory, he spent 17 years with the Glidden Company in Chicago before leaving to establish his own successful pharmaceutical enterprise, Julian Laboratories, Inc.
In addition to his groundbreaking work in the field of organic chemistry, Julian was a leader in the fight for civil rights. A strong supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in 1967 he joined a group of 46 other black businesspeople in raising money to enforce civil rights legislation through the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Despite his personal and professional success, Julian’s own encounters with racism—from the college professors who refused to offer him a teaching assistantship to the hoodlums who firebombed his suburban home—were never far from his mind.
The eldest of six children, Percy Lavon Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1899. His father, James, who worked as a railway mail clerk, was the son of former slaves who went on to purchase their own small farm. According to Percy’s younger brother, Emerson, James Julian was a strict disciplinarian who had high expectations for his children. All six would later earn advanced degrees. One day, Emerson recalled, Percy rushed home from elementary school expecting to be congratulated for having received a score of 80 on an arithmetic exam. Instead of praising him, the elder Julian responded with disappointment, stating that anything less than 100 percent would never do. Julian took his father’s advice seriously and went on to graduate at the top of his class from the State Normal School for Negroes. He then entered Indiana’s DePauw University with the hope of studying organic chemistry. There he excelled in both his studies and extracurricular activities and in 1920 was named valedictorian of his graduating class.