Biography of Dr. Percy Lavon Julian (1899-2020): Greatest African-American Chemist of the 20th Century

William Shurtleff, Akiko AoyagiISBN: 978-1-948436-81-6

Publication Date: 2022 Aug. 21

Number of References in Bibliography: 297

Earliest Reference: 1899

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Brief Chronology/Timeline of Percy Lavon Julian

For the best story (enactment) of the life of Dr. Percy L. Julian, the greatest African-American chemist of the 20th century, google PBS NOVA “Forgotten Genius” YouTube

1899 April 11 – Born in Montgomery, Alabama, at the corner of Jeff Davis Avenue and South Oak St, the grandson of a slave and the son of a mail clerk. He is the eldest of six children of James Sumner Julian and Elizabeth Lena Adams Julian. All six children graduated from DePauw University.

1916 – Becomes a “subfreshman” at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. He is the first in his family to go to college.

The most unforgettable day in his life: “At DePauw I received a great shock” Dr. Julian recalled. “White students actually shook hands with me. They were friendly. They didn't object to my being there. To a young Negro from the south, that was incredible.

“They didn't ask me to join a fraternity, but I waited table in the Sigma Chi house for my room and tended the furnace for my board. DePauw's gestures of friendship were tremendous. It changed my life.”

1920 – Graduates from DePauw with a bachelor’s (AB) degree in chemistry and top honors – Phi Beta Kappa and the highest-ranked student in the class. He gives the valedictorian’s address at graduation.

1920-1922 – Teaches chemistry at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, Fisk is a private historically black university founded in 1866.

1923 – Earns a master’s of arts degree in chemistry from Harvard University.

1923-1924 – He is a research Fellow in Biophysics at Harvard.

1924-1925 – A George and Martha Derby Scholar in chemistry at Harvard and a research assistant in chemistry.

1926-1927 – He is a professor of chemistry at West Virginia State College

1927-1928 – Heads the chemistry department at Howard University.

1929 – Receives his first really big break. The General Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation offers Julian a scholarship for doctoral studies at the school of his choice. He chooses the University of Vienna.

1931 Sept. – Graduates with a PhD degree from the Univ. of Vienna in Austria. Here he experiences no racial discrimination. And he has to study in a new language – German. His main advisor, the great German chemist, Ernst Späth, later said of Julian: “An extraordinary student. His like I have not seen before as a teacher.” It is Späth who first introduces Julian to the soybean.

After he received his Ph.D., Percy and his Viennese friend Josef Pikl sailed to America on the Queen Elizabeth and started their long-term collaboration at Howard University. Two years later, some unfortunate intrigue forced them to leave and go to DePauw University.

“Years later, after the end of World War II, Julian was notified that Späth had died [on 30 Sept. 1946 in Switzerland]. The Austrian scientist had lost everything because of the war and had left no money. Julian returned to Vienna, paid for Späth's funeral, and commissioned a portrait bust of Späth [source,

Wikipedia at Späth], which is still displayed in the foyer of the Chemische Institut.”

1932 – Takes a teaching and research job at DePauw University in Indiana.

1935 Feb. – Eserine: "Only one more year was needed to produce the artificial eserine; however, there were immediate doubts about the validity of the process. Researchers in England, working under the direction of a famous chemist, Dr. Robert Robinson, reported a very different procedure for making eserine. The reports seemed to indicate that the Julian/Pikl method was incorrect. Robinson was a powerful voice in the community of chemists, and Dr. Julian was warned not to challenge the findings. However, Percy Julian was confident of his findings and publicly stated that he could prove his procedure was correct and that Robinson's was wrong. In February of 1935, the crucial test of matching the artificial eserine with the natural compound – taken from the Calabar bean – was performed in the laboratory. It showed conclusively that the work done at DePauw – and led by Dr. Julian – was valid. If Dr. Julian had lost, he would have been disgraced and might have been forced to leave the profession of chemistry.”

1935 Dec. 25 – Marries Anna Roselle Johnson of Baltimore, Maryland. Anna (lived 24 Nov. 1903 – 3 July 1994) was the first African-American woman awarded a PhD in sociology; she earned it at the University of Pennsylvania (1937). She was light skinned and a civic activist. She had been married previously and had a young son, Leon Rhoderic Ellis. He stayed with his mother and was adopted by the Julian family.

1935 – Synthesizes physostigmine.

1936 – The Institute of Paper Chemistry in Appleton, Wisconsin was on the verge of hiring Julian when they realized that an old racist statute prohibited Negroes from staying overnight in the town.

Fortunately for Julian, the vice president of Glidden, a manufacturer of paints and other products, sat on the board of the Appleton institute. W.J. O’Brien had been seeking a talented chemist to run his new research lab, Glidden’s Soya Division, in Chicago, and he knew a good thing when he saw it. "Shocked into speechlessness by a telephone call from O'Brien, offering the job, Dr. Julian just held on to the telephone. Mistaking the pause for dissatisfaction over the salary, O'Brien quickly raised the figure. O’Brien promptly hired Julian, who began work a few days later. He became the first black chemist to direct a chemical research laboratory. It was a coup of almost unprecedented proportions for an African-American in 1936.

1939 – Succeeds in producing progesterone on an industrial scale.

1940 Aug. 31 – His first child, Percy Lavon Julian, Jr., is born in Chicago, Cook Co. Illinois.

1940 – Steroids: Julian's research at Glidden changed direction in 1940 when he began work on synthesizing progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone from the plant sterols stigmasterol and sitosterol, isolated from soybean oil by a foam technique he invented and patented. At that time, clinicians were discovering many uses for the newly discovered hormones. However, only minute quantities could be extracted from hundreds of pounds of animal spinal cords.

“In 1940, Julian was able to produce 100 pounds (45 kg) of mixed soy sterols daily, which had a value of $10,000 ($91,000 today [in 2022]) as sex hormones. Julian was soon ozonizing 100 pounds (45 kg) daily of mixed sterol dibromides. The soy stigmasterol was easily converted into commercial quantities of the female hormone progesterone, and the first pound of progesterone that he produced, valued at $63,500 ($576,000 today), was shipped to buyer Upjohn in an armored car. Production of other sex hormones soon followed.”

1942 – Extracts a soybean protein that leads to the development of a fire-retardant foam, Aer-O-Foam, that is used to smother oil and gasoline fires aboard ships and is particularly useful on aircraft carriers. It saves the lives of thousands of sailors and airmen during World War II.

1944 – Daughter Faith Roselle Julian is born.

1947 May 30 – He is awarded the Spingarn Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

1948 May – His work on the synthesis of vitamin D3, known as the 'sunshine vitamin,' resulted in the formulation of a business enterprise of his own (New York Age (New York, NY; May 29, p. 5).

1949 – Synthesizes Compound S, a major ingredient in low-cost cortisone. This enables millions of people with rheumatoid arthritis to return to normal lives.

1950 Jan. 19 – He is elected 'Chicagoan of the Year' in a poll conducted by the Sun-Times of Chicago.

1950 Nov. 22 – Vandals fail in plot to burn Dr. Julian home at 515 N. East av., Oak Park, in one of the suburb's most exclusive sections.

“The plot failed after the arsonists made two attempts to ignite the gasoline they had splashed thru the 15-room mansion. Dr. Julian and his family had not yet moved into their Oak Park home from their present address of 152 S. 14th av., Maywood.

“Landscapers and other workmen have been busy preparing the East av. home for occupancy. The extensive grounds were being cleared of brush and were being landscaped, and the house was undergoing decorating and some remodeling. The structure was built about 25 years ago.

“Chief William Watters of the Oak Park fire department and Police Lt. Fremont Nestor said it appeared the arsonists broke into the basement of the home late in the day and entered the upper floors thru an inside stairway. They splashed gasoline on the floors and walls of all 15 rooms, then left two partially filled five gallon glass jars of gasoline overturned in rooms on the first floor.

“The intruders tried to light the gasoline with a long gauze strip soaked in gasoline but failed. They returned with a kerosene torch of the type used on street repair work, and threw it thru an enclosed front porch window.

“A neighbor heard the crash of glass and looked in time to see two men driving away in a small dark sedan. Police and firemen who were summoned found the kerosene 'bomb' burning on the concrete floor of the porch, separated only by glass doors from the gasoline soaked interior of the house.”

1953 Dec. 2 – He resigns from Glidden. He plans to continue his research in the field of steroids and pharmaceuticals through a new organization to be known as the Percy L. Julian Research Laboratories. He also plans to become president and director of Suburban Chemical company, Franklin Park, which, under an expansion program that includes the construction of a modern research laboratory, will provide research for private industry.

1960s – He becomes a millionaire from steroid compound sales.

1973 – He is elected to the National Academy of Sciences, only the second African-American to be inducted, after David Blackwell.

1975 April 19 – Percy Julian dies of liver cancer in Waukegan, Illinois, a week after his 76th birthday.

1975 – A public high school in Chicago, Illinois is renamed Percy Lavon Julian High School.

1980 – The science and mathematics building on the DePauw University campus was rededicated as the Percy L. Julian Mathematics and Science Center.

1990 Jan. 25 – He is inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for “a 1954 patent [#2,752,339] for synthetic cortisone, making the wonder drug affordable for millions of Americans who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis.

1993 – The U.S. Postal Service issues a stamp in his honor.

1999 – In 1999, the American Chemical Society recognized Julian's synthesis of physostigmine as a National Historic Chemical Landmark.

Archive: The Percy Lavon Julian family papers are archived at DePauw University.

Click here to download the full text to open and read book Biography of Dr. Percy Lavon Julian (1899-2020): Greatest African-American Chemist of the 20th Century