Forgotten History: Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975)

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Percy_Lavon_JulianRenowned chemist Percy Lavon Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1899, as the oldest of 6 children born to James Sumner Julian and Elizabeth Lena Julian. Both his parents were graduates of Alabama State University. Here are some interesting facts about Percy Lavon Julian that could be easily forgotten.

His original interest was investigating plant products, especially traditional medicinal plants such as the African calabar bean. In 1935, along with Josef Pikl, he first synthesized 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 no professorship.

  • Percy became a chemistry instructor at Fisk University, but in 1923,
  • received an Austin Fellowship in Chemistry and went to Harvard to complete his masters degree.
  • Obtained his PhD in Chemistry from the University of Vienna in 1931.

He left academia to became lab director at Glidden Company. In 1939, a water leak in a tank of purified soybean oil created a strange byproduct and gave Julian 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 cortisone, very difficult to come by. Julian got right to work, and by October 1949, his team had created a synthetic cortisone substitute, radically less expensive but just as effective. Natural cortisone had to be extracted from the adrenal glands of oxen and cost hundreds of dollars per drop; Julian’s synthetic cortisone was only pennies per ounce.

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.

  • He held more than 100 chemical patents
  • Wrote scores of papers on his work, and received dozens of awards and honorary degrees
  • 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).
  • He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1973 in recognition of his scientific achievements, becoming the second African American to be inducted into the Academy.

Julian taught for one year at Howard University, where he met his future wife, Anna Roselle Johnson (Ph.D. in Sociology, 1937, University of Pennsylvania). They married on December 24, 1935 and had two children: Percy Lavon Julian, Jr. (August 31, 1940 – February 24, 2008), who became a prestigious civil rights lawyer in Madison, Wisconsin; and Faith Roselle Julian (1944– ), who still resides in their Oak Park home and often makes inspirational speeches about her father and his contributions to science. In 1951, Julian and his family moved to Oak Park, Illinois, becoming the first black family to live there. While living there his house was firebombed twice, but the community largely backed him and celebrates his birthday as a holiday.

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