Today we celebrate Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975).
The grandson of a slave, Percy Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1899.
In a lifetime of continual striving, Julian succeeded against the prejudices and discrimination of his time to become a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants. He was also a successful industrial research director, a wealthy businessman, and a civil rights advocate.
In his research, Julian isolated simple compounds in natural products, then investigated how those compounds were naturally altered into chemicals essential for life, such as vitamins and hormones.
He then figured out how to create those compounds artificially. When he was still a young man, he became famous for synthesizing the drug physostigmine which is used to treat glaucoma.
His chemical work with soybean protein led to the development of aero-foam, a foam fire extinguisher that was used widely during World War II.
Julian also led research that resulted in the commercial production of steroid hormones, including the cortisone drugs that are used to treat painful conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. Altogether, Julian received more than 130 chemical patents.
In 1950, Julian was named Chicago’s Man of the Year, but his home was then bombed and burned. He was widely recognized as a steadfast advocate for human rights. He was active as a fundraiser for the NAACP for their project to sue to enforce civil rights legislation.
In 1973, Dr. Percy Julian become only the second African American to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He continued his research studies until his death in 1975. In 2002, PBS Nova produced a two-hour documentary about his life, called “Forgotten Genius.”