Black History - Percy Lavon Julian, PhD
This month, CRCHD staff will be blogging about influential black doctors, scientists, and medical innovators, as well as rising stars from our portfolio. If you would like to nominate someone to be honored, please email CUREsupplements (at) NIH (dot) gov
Percy Lavon Julian
Percy Julian was born in Montgomery Alabama in 1899, during the Jim Crow era, to parents who pushed him and his siblings to obtain an education despite the extreme racism all around him. Julian attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, which did not allow African American students to live on campus. It was a challenge for Julian to find a place to live that would also serve him meals; eventually, he ended up working as a butler and furnace operator in a fraternity house, where he was permitted to sleep in the attic and eat in the house. Despite these hardships, Percy was tremendously successful, graduating in 1920 as valedictorian.
Julian was awarded a fellowship to attend Harvard University’s masters program in Chemistry, but Harvard would not permit Julian to teach white students, and created numerous barriers to Julian pursuing his PhD. After a short stint as an instructor at Howard University, he left the United States to obtain his doctorate at University of Vienna.
One of his long-time friends, Josef Pikl, wrote in a letter: “The time spent in Austria had a great influence in developing the personality of Julian. For the first time in his life, he was completely at ease, no open or hidden barriers, really an equal among equals. He may have even enjoyed a standing a few notches higher than his friends. In the laboratory at Vienna, he was particularly noticed for his neatness, the cleanliness of his work bench, his ready and contagious laugh, completely uninhibited. All the fifteen other graduate students in the room were his friends. He loved the freedom in Austria so much that a year after his graduation, he returned for the Summer and we spent a few weeks cycling through parts of Carinthia and the bordering area of Yugoslavia. One incident from this time he recited with much glee. When in a remote country village of Austria a boy about 8 years old slowly sneaked up to him and rubbed his hand and then looked to see if the color came off. A group of boys who had never seen a black man, except a chimney sweep, wanted to know if the color rubbed off.”
While in Vienna, Percy became very fond of European culture, wine, and women, the latter of which he described in much detail in a series of letters that were later used as blackmail to force him to resign from his second appointment at Howard. He returned to DePauw, teaching organic chemistry and conducting research, but was not permitted to become a professor due to his race. Racism stalled his career time and again, having a position at DuPont rescinded because they were “unaware he was a Negro” and being unable to take a position at the Institute of Paper Chemistry in Appleton, WI due to a statute that forbid blacks from being boarded overnight in the town.
Eventually, Julian was hired at Glidden Company, due to both his chemistry genius and his fluency in German. While at Glidden, he isolated soy protein, developed Aer-O-Foam which was used in fire fighting, and synthesized numerous hormones, including estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and cortisone from the soybean oil.
Julian’s scientific achievements were matched by his philanthropy and community engagement. During World War II, Julian helped Abraham Zlotnik, one of his former Viennese classmates, escape from the Holocaust. Julian helped to start Roosevelt College in Chicago, IL in 1945. In 1950, Dr. Julian was named “Chicagoan of the Year” for his educational, religious and civic programs.
In the early 1950s, Julian and his family bought a home in Oak Park, IL, which was firebombed twice – once before they could move in, and a second time on June 12, 1951. Members of the community formed a support group to defend the Julians against racist attacks, but Julian and his family were forced to remain hypervigilant to make sure their home remained safe.
Soon after their move, Glidden decided to exit the hormone business, so Julian started a new company, Julian Laboratories. However, he was having trouble obtaining a yam used as a raw material for hormone synthesis, due to another company’s stronghold on importing it from Mexico. His company was struggling to make ends meet and was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Fortunately, according to Julian,
“a strange thing happened. There was a knock on the door, and in came [Abraham Zlotnik], a man that I had helped out of Hitler's Germany. Abe said he was sure the yam grew in Guatemala, and he volunteered to make an expedition for me. I told him I was broke, ruined. I didn't know when I could pay him back. But he said, "You've already paid me back."”
Once the yam was secured, Julian Laboratories was able to increase yields of steroid hormones by more than 400%, and reduce their price more than 10-fold. Thanks to Dr. Julian, patients with hormone deficiencies and other conditions were able to obtain affordable treatments for the first time. In 1973, Dr. Julian became the second African American to be inducted to the National Academy of Sciences.
Dr. Julian died in 1975, but his legacy lives on. Dr. Julian holds 15 honorary degrees, has published more than 160 journal articles, holds more than 100 patents, and was a trustee of five universities. DePauw University, which at one time would not permit Julian to obtain the rank of Professor, dedicated the Mathematics and Science Center in Dr. Julian’s honor in 1980. He was inducted to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1990, was honored on a postage stamp in 1993, and has both a middle school and a high school in Illinois named after him.