Dr. Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975) was the grandson of Alabama ex-slaves. His prominence and fame developed from his discoveries in chemistry. Early in his discoveries he produced physostigmine, a drug made from Calabar beans that is used to treat glaucoma. While working on the West Side of Chicago for the Glidden Paint Company, he worked in soybean research where he developed foam that put out oil and gas fires. The Navy in World War II saved many lives by using a foam fire extinguisher.
Later, he produced two synthetic hormones, testosterone and progesterone from soybean oil. Testosterone is used in medicine for treatment of testosterone deficiency and certain cancers, while progesterone helps prevent spontaneous abortion in pregnant women. Also he created a drug from the soybean oil that could substitute for the natural cortisone in our bodies. Synthetic cortisone was used to ease the pain of arthritis sufferers. By producing such life-saving products and synthetics, Julian made a number of medical treatments affordable to all people.
Percy Julian was fiercely dedicated, believed in himself, and was determined to succeed. He became an American research chemist of international renown, but his achievement didn’t come easily. He fought racism in his academic, civic and private life.
He fought racism in his academic life by always being at the top or among the top students in his graduating class. First, in 1920, he received a bachelor’s degree from DePauw University in Indiana at the head of his class, honored as Phi Beta Kappa orator and valedictorian. In 1923, he earned his master’s degree from Harvard University, again in the top group of his class. According to Paul de Knuif in a 1946 article in Reader’s Digest, “Julian waited on tables, took care of the furnaces, and made chemistry experiments far into the night.” In 1929, Julian was accepted into the doctoral program at the University of Vienna against stiff international competition for one of the few openings available. In 1931, he was awarded a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the University of Vienna in Austria.
In his civic life he fought racial injustice. In 1956, he became at the national level the first black layman to head the Council for Social Action of the Congregational Christian Churches. The council raised funds to support court challenges to segregation. On another occasion, according to the New York Times, the council asked all members to “support nonsegregated practices in selling, buying and leasing property.” Finally, the council raised litigation funds for a delegate who had been refused admission to an American Legion Post.
Later, in 1967, Julian and a group of 47 wealthy businesspersons and professionals raised money for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The group, calling itself the National Negro Business and Professional Committee for the Legal Defense Fund, announced in the New York Times, “This means the Negro millionaire is coming of age and taking a responsible place in the community.”
In his private life, he fought back against racism. In 1950, Dr. Julian, one of the first black residents of Oak Park, confronted the village government who resisted turning the water on in his home. Julian threatened to go to court if the water commissioner didn’t turn the water to his house on. Also in 1950, after a failed arson attempt on his home, as reported in the Chicago Defender, Mrs. Julian said, “We refuse to be intimidated.” In 1951, after a second arson attempt on Dr. Julian’s home resulted in an explosion, Julian told the New York Times, “We’ve lived through these things all our lives. As far as the hurt to the spirit goes, we’ve become accustomed to that.” The Julians persevered, however, and Percy’s daughter, Faith, still lives in the family home in Oak Park.
Percy Julian refused to let racism destroy his ambitions, goals and desires.
The PBS TV series NOVA will devote an episode to the life of Percy Julian on Tuesday, Feb. 6 (Channel 11).