Percy Julian is best known for formulating a drug to treat glaucoma and for synthesizing sex hormones and cortisone. A native of Montgomery, Alabama and the grandson of former slaves, Julian was born first of six children on April11, 1899. His mother, Elizabeth Lena Adams Julian, taught school and his father, James Sumner Julian, also a teacher, worked as a railroad mail clerk.
Julian graduated with the standard eight years of education from the State Normal School for Negroes in 1916 and then took additional courses to prepare for a white college. In 1920, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and valedictorian ofhis class at DePauw University, where he lived in a fraternity house attic and earned tuition by waiting tables. Because doctoral programs passed over black students, he was unable to obtain a fellowship. For two years he taught chemistry at Fisk University, then received an Austin Fellowship to study at Harvard University, where he earned a master's degree in chemistry in 1923. Hethen worked at Harvard an additional three years as a research fellow. Returning to the classroom, Julian taught one year at West Virginia State College,then two years at Howard University. With a grant from the General EducationBoard, he obtained a Ph.D.in organic chemistry in 1931 from the University of Vienna, where he specialized in alkaloids.
It was under the influence of Ernst Spath that Julian first began to realizethe medical applicability of soya derivatives to human illness. On his returnto the United States, he headed DePauw's chemistry department from 1932 to 1936. During this period, he married sociologist Anna John and fathered two children. With the support of the Rosenwald Fund, Julian made his first great laboratory breakthrough in 1935 with the artificial creation of physostigmine,a drug that forms naturally in the adrenal glands and which lowers eye pressure in victims of glaucoma. The drug is also used in the treatment of swelling of the brain, skin and kidney disease, bronchial asthma, and leukemia.
Denied a job at the Institute of Paper Chemistry because of his race, he headed Glidden's soya research center in Chicago and later, Julian Laboratories,where he extracted sterols from soybeans. With these substances, in 1950 he contained the cost of synthetic sterols at 20 cents per gram, thereby helpingarthritics obtain a derivative, cortisone, at a low price. Other aspects of his research aided the formulation of paint, printing, paper-making, and waterproofing as well as the creation of low-cost milk substitutes, livestock andpoultry feed, food emulsifier, and an oxygen-impermeable fire-fighting foam used by the military in World War II.
Julian also synthesized progesterone and testosterone, both of which are essential to the body's endocrine system. His discoveries helped treat cancer andrelieved problem pregnancies and menstrual disorders. He founded his own institute in Franklin Park, Illinois, in 1953, and added a satellite plant in Mexico City, where he tapped local supplies of diosorea (a wild yam) asa rich source of diosgenin , which he developed into cortexolone.
In 1964, he sold his facilities to Smith, Kline, and French and retired to Oak Park, Illinois, but continued publishing technical articles and maintainedthe directorship of laboratory projects until his death from cancer on April19, 1975. Fame and utility brought a mixed reception for Julian's contributions. A devoted family man and prominent citizen of Chicago, he was named man of the year by the Jaycees and the Chicago Sun-Times. In spite of his acceptance by the scientific community, however, he was barred from attendingsome professional functions held in segregated halls, and for four consecutive years he was turned down for admittance to the Inventors Hall of Fame before his induction in 1990. When he moved to a new home, he suffered harassmentfrom local racists but refused to be bullied. His alma mater honored his workby naming the DePauw chemistry and mathematics building for him.