African American Entrepreneur Percy Julian Made Strides in Chemistry
Dr. Percy Lavon Julian was born in 1899, just 34 years after the end of the Civil War. He grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, during a time of staggering educational and professional discrimination, yet, in his lifetime, he was able to reach remarkable levels of achievement in his education, his career and as an entrepreneur.
One of six children, Percy Julian was born to parents determined to see their children succeed. His father was a mail clerk for the railroad and his mother was a schoolteacher. Both of them emphasized to all their children the importance of higher education.
The Percy Lavon Julian Childhood
Growing up, Julian attended segregated schools but, when he graduated high school in 1916, he was accepted into DePauw University as one of a very few Black students. Because of deficits in his earlier education, during his first year there he had to take both high school-level and college freshman classes at the same time: literally double the workload of other first-year students. Despite this nearly crushing handicap, he graduated four years later as both an honor society member and the valedictorian of his class.
In spite of his inspiring scholarly achievement, Julian was discouraged by his professors from continuing his education. They could not envision a place for this remarkable young man in the white world of academia. On their advice, he took a job teaching chemistry at Fisk University, and all black college in Nashville, Tennessee.
But Julian chafed at having to give up on his dream. He was a chemist by both passion and training and he longed to learn as much as he could and make a contribution to the field of chemistry. After two years of teaching, he pursued, and was awarded, a fellowship to study chemistry at Harvard University. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. Finally allowed to study at the graduate level, he excelled, earning a Master’s Degree at the top of his class in 1923.
But to Julian, the master’s degree was just one more stepping stone. His real passion was research. He longed to have a lab and conduct research of his own design. After teaching for several years at both West Virginia State and then at Howard University, he traveled to Vienna, Austria, to pursue his Ph.D. Julian thrived in Vienna where discrimination was less common than it was in the US. While there, he had access to his own laboratory where he focused on organic chemistry.
Percy Julian Accomplishments
Returning triumphantly to the US — Ph.D. in hand — Julian was accepted at Howard University as the head of the chemistry department and later moved back to DePauw where he partnered with Dr. Josef Pikl, whom he had met in Vienna. The pair amazed the scientific community by formulating a chemical synthesis of a then-scarce glaucoma drug called physostigmine, beating out other international teams who were struggling for the same breakthrough.
Despite the well-deserved accolades Julian received for this accomplishment, the administration at DePauw refused to advance him further. Julian Percy had, again, run straight into the solid wall of racial discrimination. He decided to leave the academic world and pursue a career in commercial research, but this, too, would be difficult. He could not find a job with any of the major research laboratories in the US simply because of his race.
Despite his justified frustration, he continued to apply and was finally accepted on the merit of his skills as the director of Glidden’s soy-product development lab. While it was not the field that Julian preferred, while working there he developed hundreds of compounds used in paints and other household products, including a flame retardant that saved thousands of lives during World War II. His crowning achievement during his years with Glidden, however, was the discovery of a way to synthesize prednisone, a life-saving drug that at the time was in desperately short supply.
Frustrated by the constraints of his corporate job, Percy Julian eventually left Glidden and started his own successful pharmaceutical company, producing synthetic human hormones. Hiring mostly African-American scientists, Julian saw this as his chance to help others who were struggling with discrimination in their careers just as he once had. Always honest and compassionate, when his company discovered a way to produce more medicine from the raw materials they had been using, Julian passed the savings on to his customers, dropping his prices proportionately. He eventually sold his business for more than two million dollars, an incredible amount of money in 1961.
Percy Julian BIO Closing Comments
Near the end of his life, Julian was finally recognized as the genius he was, receiving numerous awards for his accomplishments. The one real tragedy of his life was that his career was so inhibited by the prejudice he had to endure. If he had been allowed to explore his incredible gift for chemistry to its fullest, who knows what amazing advancements the world would have seen?
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