Percy Lavon Julian is the father of medical drugs— his efforts brought us the standard today in cortisone, steroids, birth control pills and other medications.
Percy Lavon Julian: pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants.
Percy Julian grew up in racist Jim Crow culture and legal regime in Montgomery, Alabama. At a time when access to an education beyond the eighth grade was extremely rare for African-Americans, Julian’s parents steered all of their children toward higher education, of whom even Julian’s father was the son of a slave.
The segregated nature of the town forced social humiliations while attending DePauw University in Indiana. He was not allowed to live or eat in many place around campus, but worked around it by doing odd jobs in a fraternity house; in return, having a place to sleep in the attic and eat at the house. Julian graduated from DePauw in 1920 as a Phi Beta Kappa and valedictorian.
Julian would set his sights at receiving higher degrees student, but in 1923 he received an Austin Fellowship in Chemistry, which allowed him to attend Harvard University to obtain his M.S. but was soon withdrawn the teaching assistantship due to concerns of Euro-American students resenting being taught by an African-American. This would make it impossible for him to complete his Ph.D. at Harvard. Julian would become an instructor at Fisk University instead. Years later, Julian received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to continue his graduate work at the University of Vienna, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1931 and found racial freedom.
Returning from Vienna, he would teach for one year at Howard University, but soon a scandal regarding private letters to a colleague about his “sex-capades” would force Julian to resign.
After an embarrassing low point in Julian’s career, his former mentor, William Blanchard offered Julian a position to teach organic chemistry at DePauw University in 1932.
Career and Discoveries
This alkaloid proved effective in treating glaucoma, a disease responsible for 15 percent of all cases of blindness in the United States. Any scientist who could fully synthesize the alkaloid in a lab would receive considerable international attention, but pursuing physostigmine could have been career suicide as it would have looked as if he was changeling the expert. His success led to landing the position of director of research at Chicago’s Glidden Company. It would be there that he’d obtain 100 patents due to his work with the “miracle [soy]bean” that was developed into many products.
One of his greatest discoveries was stigma-sterol, after an accident where he’d recognize a plant steroid that could be converted into the pregnancy hormone progesterone. Through this achievement and later hormonal research, Julian helped launch the steroid industry, whose products would eventually include cortisone and the birth control pill.
Another product he would come to discover is Aero-Foam in 1942. During World War II, the United States Navy applied the foam to oil and gas fires on board aircraft carriers and other ships, effectively saving thousands.
In 1949, Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic discovered that the steroid cortisone could ease the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. While many chemists attempted to produce the chemical from scratch, Julian tried a seemingly simpler approach: synthesizing an almost identical steroid called Compound S, which would eventually make the steroid a key ingredient in cortisone production, just as he had predicted.
He later started his own company to synthesize steroid intermediates from the wild Mexican yam, as it became an additional alternative to the soybean. His work helped greatly reduce the cost of steroid intermediates to large multinational pharmaceutical companies, helping to significantly expand the use of several important drugs.
Awards and Honors
Julian received more than 130 chemical patents. He was one of the first African Americans to receive a doctorate in chemistry. He was the first African-American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. in 1993, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in his honor (which you can buy here). In 1999, the American Chemical Society recognized his synthesis of the glaucoma drug physostigmine as one of the top achievements in the history of American chemistry.