Spotlight on: 'Dr. Percy L. Julian'
Dr. Percy Julian, 1899 1975
Just before the turn of the century, Percy L.
Julian was born in Montgomery , Alabama .
He was a bright student, but at that time
the city provided no public education for
Colored students after eighth grade.
He persisted, however, and entered DePauw
University in Indiana as a "sub-freshman".
He had to take several classes to get caught up
on what his public education had not provided.
Yet in 1920, he graduated first in his
class with Phi Beta Kappa honors.
He became a chemistry instructor at Fisk
University (an HBIMU), but in 1923, received
an Austin Fellowship in Chemistry and went
to Harvard to complete his Masters degree.
Again he took university teaching positions for a few
years before traveling to Austria to obtain his PhD in
chemistry from the University of Vienna in 1931.
He returned to DePauw to continue his research.
His original interest was investigating plant
products, especially traditional medicinal
plants such as the African Calabar Bean.
In 1935 he first help to synthesize from
this plant a chemical called Physostigmine,
or Esserine, which could treat the
sometimes blinding disease of glaucoma
by reducing pressure inside the eyeball.
This brought him international scientific
acclaim, but still no professorship.
He left academia to became lab
director at Glidden Company.
One day in 1939, a water leak in a tank
of purified soybean oil created a strange
byproduct and gave Julian a surprise insight:
the soy sterol that had been created could
be used to manufacture male and female
hormones, progesterone and testosterone.
Progesterone would prove useful in treating
certain cancers and problem pregnancies.
During World War II, Julian developed a foam
from soy protein that could put out oil and gas
fires; it was quickly adopted by the military.
In 1948, the Mayo Clinic announced the discovery
of a compound that relieved rheumatoid arthritis.
It was natural cortisone, however, had to be
extracted from the adrenal glands of oxen
and it cost hundreds of dollars per drop.
As a result of natural cortisone being very difficult
to come by it was also extremely expensive
-- such that only rich people could afford it.
In effort to help relieve the suffering of
those individuals who were not rich,
--- Dr. Percy got right to work.
He next set out to provide a synthetic
version of cortisone, a product which
greatly relieved the pain of suffered
by sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis.
By October 1949, his team had created
a synthetic cortisone substitute, radically
less expensive but just as effective.
Julian's synthetic cortisone was
only pennies per ounce.
With Julian's discovery of the soy-based
substitute, millions of sufferers around the
world found relief at a reasonable price.
Juliam continued his success as he next
developed a way to inexpensively develop
male and female hormones from soy beans.
These hormones would help to prevent
miscarriages in pregnant women and would
be used to fight cancer and other ailments.
By making important medical products plentiful
and less expensive, Julian accelerated the
research and growth of knowledge about them.
His techniques and products led directly to
the development of chemical birth control
and medicines to suppress the immune system,
crucial in performing organ transplants.
Julian held more than 100 chemical patents,
wrote scores of papers on his work, and received
dozens of awards and honorary degrees.
He founded The Julian Laboratories, Inc., with labs in
the U.S. and Mexico (both purchased by Smith Kline
French in 1961) and another chemical plant in
Guatemala (owned by Upjohn Company since 1961).
So significant was his work that in 1950 the City
of Chicago named him 'Chicagoan of the Year'.
In 1951, Julian and his family moved to Oak Park ,
Illinois , becoming the first Colored family to live there.
Soon after purchased a home for his family
in nearby Oak Park , the home was set afire
by an arsonist on Thanksgiving day 1950.
A year later, dynamite was thrown from a
passing car and exploded outside the
bedroom window of Julain's children.
The community, however, largely backed him
and today celebrates his birthday as a holiday.
Percy L. Julian holding glasses, n.d.
Percy L. Julian in laboratory
Percy L. Julian talking,
photo of East College