This month I will share stories on Black History Month – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. History isn’t always pretty and sometimes we sanitize that which makes us uncomfortable. Here I will share all facets of Black History and try to focus on people not necessarily in the history books.
The Good – Percy Lavon Julian
Percy Lavon Julian was born April 11, 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama, the oldest of six children. His parents both were college graduates and encouraged all their children toward higher education. Julian went to DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana which accepted few African American students. He could not live in the college dormitories and the boarding home where he lived refused to serve him meals. Eventually he found work firing the furnace, waiting tables, and other odd jobs at a fraternity house in return for being able to sleep in the attic and have meals at the home.
In 1920, Julian graduated a Phi Beta Kappa and valedictorian. He wanted to get his doctorate in chemistry, but it was too difficult for African Americans. He taught chemistry at Fisk University until 1923 when he received an Austin Fellowship in Chemistry at Harvard where he could get his Ph.D. But Harvard withdrew his teaching assistantship believing white students would not want an African American teacher.
Eventually Julian would get his Ph.D., but he had to go to the University of Vienna to get it. While in Europe he found greater acceptance and was able to participate in social gatherings, the opera, and more. After Vienna Julian taught for a year at Howard University, but resigned after a scandal involving letters he wrote from Vienna and an alleged sexual tryst with a married woman.
Julian was rescued by his former mentor, William Blanchard, and offered the chance to teach organic chemistry at DePauw. Julian invited his former classmate in Vienna, Josef Pikl to work with him. The team completed the total synthesis of physostigmine and confirmed the structural formula assigned to it. However, racial discrimination would rear its ugly head again, as Julian was denied a professorship and a job a DuPont.
While all of this was going on, the Glidden Company, a supplier of soybean oil products, offered Julian a job as director of research after he had asked for a five gallon sample of soybean oil for synthesis of human steroidal sex hormones. Part of the reason for the request was to help with his wife’s infertility. His development of male and female hormones from soybeans helped prevent miscarriages, was used to fight cancer, and other illnesses. He also came up with a synthetic form of cortisone which became a cheaper alternative for sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis.
Julian designed the first plant for the production of industrial-grade, isolated soy protein from oil-free soybean meal. His isolated soy protein was sent to National Foam System Inc. This protein was used to develop Aer-O-Foam which the United States Navy used for firefighting.
In 1950, Chicago names Julian Chicagoan of the Year. It was quite the honor and Julian and his family bought a home in Oak Park, Illinois. But before they could move in, on Thanksgiving Day of that year, his home was set afire by an arsonist. The next year, someone from a passing car threw dynamite at his home. The dynamite exploded outside the bedroom window of his children’s room.
As Glidden stepped away from the steroid business, Julian founded Julian Laboratories, Inc. in 1953. He won a contract with Upjohn to provide $2 million worth of progesterone. Finding that Mexican wild yams were better than soybeans for his product, he opened a lab in Mexico City. In 1961 he sold his plants to Smith Kline and French for $2.3 million.
On April 18, 1975, Julian died from liver cancer.
Chamberlain, Gaius. (2012, March 23). Percy Julian. The Black Inventor. Retrieved February 21, 2017. http://blackinventor.com/percy-julian/
Percy Lavon Julian. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 21, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percy_Lavon_Julian