A Black History Month reflection on Percy Julian

I originally published this piece on Percy Julian in February of 2015 when still writing for the Examiner.  He is someone I would also consider a “Hidden Figure” at least in my life.  Attaining a Ph.D. in the sciences myself, I didn’t learn about Julian until well into my science career.

When I watched the documentary Forgotten Genius, I was amazed not only about what Julian had to overcome, but also everything he accomplished scientifically, and how the very same scientific process I experienced as graduate student was similar to his.  Dr. Vernon Morris of Howard University’s Department of Chemistry and NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences (NCAS), later shared with me that watching Forgotten Genius is in fact required for Howard’s Chemistry students, and rightfully so.

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My last black history month reflection for 2015 will focus on the legendary Chemist Percy Julian.  Though honored with his own postal stamp in 1993, the name Percy Julian didn’t register in my mind until the annual conference for the National Organization for Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) in 2012.  Someone won an award named after him that night, but not being a Chemist myself, I didn’t have a feel for why he was held in such honor in that particular circle.  It turned out that there was an entire pantheon of well-accomplished African American Chemists.

Later on, a mentor gave me a copy of Percy Julian; Forgotten Genius.  The DVD chronicled Julian’s life from his youth in the Jim Crow south, to his collegiate studies at Depauw University, to his doctoral studies abroad in Austria, and then through to his vast research career in the chemical industry which almost didn’t happen due to racism.  What stood out to me from Percy Julian’s story was his perseverance in spite of the racism he encountered, as well as the fact that his original scientific interest was in plants which he later returned to, after receiving his chemistry training.

Why is Percy Julian important and what did he do in the field of chemistry?  A better question would be what didn’t he do in chemistry?  Among his many accomplishments were:

  • Becoming one of the first African Americans to earn his Ph.D. in chemistry by isolating the active ingredient in Corydalis Cava and identifying its structure. In the pre-civil rights era, Dr. Julian wasn’t admitted to any graduate programs in the United States, so he had to travel Austria, where he studied natural products chemistry under Dr. Ernst Spath at the University of Vienna.
  • After being denied professorships at universities in the United States, he was hired as the director of Chemistry for Glidden’s Chicago Chemistry labs. For African Americans, this breakthrough occurred ten years before Jackie Robinson integrated Major League baseball.  At Glidden, Julian isolated the alpha protein from soybeans, the first plant protein to be produced in bulk in the United States.  The alpha protein led to the generation of oils that were used in both food and industrial products of all kinds.
  • Discovering how to isolate large scale quantities of stigmasterol from the calabar and soy beans and then developing an industrial process for using it to generate progesterone in large quantities. This led to numerous hormone therapies and therapeutics by allowing pharmaceutical companies to industrially synthesize other sex hormones in large quantities making them more affordable (testosterone, estrogen, etc.).
  • Creating processes to mass produce Compound S (which could be converted to Cortisone), which at that time was a novel but expensive medication for arthritis and inflammation. Julian’s discoveries made the drug affordable for the general public and greatly improved the qualities of life of many people.
  • Starting his own company (Julian Labs), which mass produced hormone intermediates for the major pharmaceutical companies but potentially more importantly, gave jobs to African American chemists who couldn’t get work anywhere else due to racism. He also made himself a millionaire in the process.

In addition to his many scientific achievements and victories in the realm of chemistry, Percy Julian became highly involved in the Civil Rights movement and with the NAACP.  In the latter stages of his life, he was celebrated with more than 18 honorary degrees and more than a dozen civic and scientific awards.  He became only the second African American to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1973.

Julian’s story is important for several reasons.  First it shows what can be accomplished with great perseverance.  Second it is a testament to how much talent was and is wasted in urban communities due.  Julian’s story is very important for African Americans pursuing advanced degrees particularly in the sciences.  When watching Forgotten Genius, much of what Julian went through during graduate school reminded me of my own experience.  Seeing his story years ago would’ve helped me better understand the significance of my own graduate studies.  Today his story can help inspire younger generations of potential African American scientists, and innovators in a world where STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education is becoming increasingly important.

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