Percy Lavon Julian was born on April 11, 1899 in Birmingham, Alabama. His mother was a school teacher and his father was a railroad mailman; education was of the highest importance in their household. Julian attended elementary school in Birmingham, Alabama, and then he attended high school in Montgomery, Alabama. He graduated high school form the State Normal School for Negroes in 1916 after graduation he moved to Greencastle, Indiana where he attended DePauw University. The University placed Julian on a probationary period; he took additional classes at Indiana Asbury Preparatory Academy run by DePauw, the University didn’t feel that Julian was prepared to attend college. Along with his additional course load Julian worked at a fraternity house to help pay his tuition.
Despite having to balance a full schedule of school and work, Julian became an honor student. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa and became a member of the Sigma Xi honorary society; he also graduated at the top of his class. Julian was the class Valedictorian but he was denied entry into graduate school because of his race. Even though Julian was brilliant and successful he was still affected by racism. He would become a Chemistry teacher at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee for two years. His next move was to Cambridge, Massachusetts to attend Harvard through an Austin Fellowship in Chemistry. Julian took full advantage of his opportunity to shine on a graduate level. He showed his brilliance by graduating at the top of his class and receiving his master’s degree from Harvard in 1923.
Racism reared its ugly head once again in Julian’s life, he was denied teaching positions at the predominantly white colleges, and they claimed the students wouldn’t be able to learn from him. Julian accepted a teaching positon at West Virginia State College for Negros, where he would teach Chemistry until he accepted a position at Howard University as head of the chemistry department. In 1929 Julian accepted a fellowship to travel to Vienna, Austria to earn his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry. He graduated in 1931 then returned to the United States to become the head of the chemistry department at Howard University. He later returned to DePauw University as a chemistry teacher; he would begin working on the synthesis of physostigmine with Dr. Dr. Josef Pikl from Vienna. Physostigmine is a drug that Julian used to treat glaucoma that is made from the Calabar bean. He and Pikl worked together for three years, in that time along with synthesizing the Calabar bean, they published 11 articles in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. As a result of the publications Julian was considered a world-renowned chemist at the age of 36.
Once again racism would confront Julian, after his success in his research with Dr. Pikl he was denied the position as the head of the chemistry department, because he was black. Frustrated with the academic world, Julian took a position with the Glidden Company as the Chief Chemist and director of the Soya Product Division. He was the first black person to be hired as the Chief Chemist and director of the Soya Product Division. The Glidden Company expected Julian to use soybeans to make paint and other products they produced. He developed a flame retardant aero-foam that was widely used by the U.S. Navy in World War II. In 1935 Julian moved to Chicago, Illinois after he married Anna Johnson. He would use his knowledge of plants and chemistry to develop male and female hormones using the soy bean. The hormones were used to help pregnant women from having miscarriages and it was used to fight cancer. He next used the soy bean to create an inexpensive version of cortisone; it was able to help many people around the world find pain relief.
In 1950 the city of Chicago named Julian as the Chicagoan of the year, later that year the new home he brought was set on fire by racist pyromaniac. Within a year Julian’s family survived another terrorist attack, dynamite was thrown outside his young daughter’s window; Julian and his family were not welcome in the new neighborhood they lived in. No matter how many achievements he gained he was still not good enough for the white residents of Chicago. In 1954 he started his own company called Julian Laboratories, to produce synthesized cortisone. He would later discover that yams were more effective for producing cortisone that soy beans. Julian opened a laboratory in Mexico City, Mexico called the Laboratorios Julian de Mexico. They used the Mexican laboratory to cultivate yams and shipped them to his Oak Park laboratory in the U.S. Julian sold his company to Kline and French a pharmaceutical company for $2.3 million dollars. He would later establish the Julian Research Institute where he continued his work until 1975, which is the year Percy Julian died.
Julian received several awards for his amazing achievements; he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1973, he was the first recipient of DePauw’s McNaughton Medal for Public Service. In 1990 he was elected to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and he received 19 honorary doctorate degrees. In 1993 the U.S. Postal Service honored Julian with a stamp in the Black Heritage Commemorative Stamp series. Lastly, a street was named after Julian in the city of Greencastle; they renamed First Street to Percy Julian Drive. Julian was courageous, persistent, brilliant, and innovative and an example of what true success is. He endured open racism that could have negatively affected his career. He decided to take life into his own hands and managed to change the world. Dr. Percy Julian, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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