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Tuesday, 06 February 2007 06:52

African-American chemist Percy Julian featured on PBS TV special

At 8 p.m. EST on Tuesday, February 6, 2007, PBS airs the two-hour NOVA television special “Forgotten Genius”—the story about the largely unknown but inspiring life of African-American chemist Percy Julian. He is widely regarded as one of the most important chemists of the twentieth century.

As a research chemist, Julian pioneered such applications as the industrial synthesis of soybeans into steroids and the low-cost production of the drug cortisone.

Percy Lavon Julian was born on April 11, 1899, in Montgomery, Alabama. With the help of his parents who possessed backgrounds in teaching and believed that education would led their children to better lives, Julian was able to overcome racial bigotry and segregation. He graduated in 1920 with a bachelor’s of science degree from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. He received his master’s of science degree in 1923 and his doctoral degree in 1931, both from the University of Vienna (Austria). Upon graduation with his Ph.D. in natural products chemistry, Julian taught at Howard University (1931), in Washington, D.C., and then at DePauw University (1932-1936).

One of his first scientific successes was in 1935, when Julian, along with Josef Pikl, was able to totally synthesize physostigmine (also known as esterine), a drug that affects the parasympathetic nervous system. The drug was developed to treat glaucoma, a disorder of the optic nerves of the eyes.

When Julian did not receive a professorship at DePauw because of his racial heritage, he left in 1936 to become the Director of Research at the Soy Products Division of the Glidden Paint Company in Chicago, Illinois. Julian designed the first U.S. manufacturing plant for the production of industrial grade soy protein. The team of chemists under Julian’s direction produced numerous household and industrial products such as latex paint, high-protein livestock feed, and plastics. One of his most important discoveries was a soy protein that could be used as foams for firefighting. In fact, these fire-extinguishing foams saved thousands of American lives during World War II.

While at Glidden, Julian produced the artificial female hormone progesterone. His work with female hormones made from soybean sterols (steroid alcohols) eventually led to research into the development of birth control pills. He later started his own business, Julian Laboratories. During his professional life, Julian developed over 130 patents. His success led him to help other African-Americans into various areas of science.

The PBS NOVA television special describes that when the United States was still largely segregated, Julian was able to become a world-famous scientist, self-motivated millionaire, civil-rights leader, and role-model for disadvantaged youth. Julian was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 1973. At the time, he was the only African-American chemist to have been inducted and only the second African-American inductee.

Julian died on April 19, 1975, but not before accomplishing the dream that his mother and father first believed was possible 76 years earlier.

For additional information about the PBS NOVA special “Forgotten Genius” on the life of Percy Julian, go to: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/julian/.

For more information on Percy Julian, go to: (Black Inventor Online Museum) https://www.blackinventor.com/pages/percyjulian.html and (National Academies Press) https://books.nap.edu/html/biomems/pjulian.html.

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