Percy Julian, Chemist Extraordinaire

By Usha Alexander | Jun 2007 | Comments


The story I will tell you tonight is a story of wonder and amazement, almost a story of miracles. It is a story of laughter and tears. It is a story of human beings, therefore, a story of meanness, of stupidity, of kindness and nobility. -Percy Julian, 1899-1975

Juliandjerassi1_3Percy Lavon Julian, born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1899, the grandson of slaves, was one of the most accomplished chemists of the 20th century. His work, especially in the field of steroid chemistry, positively affected countless millions of lives and did nothing less than to help change the world.

In the Jim Crow South, libraries were closed to blacks and public schooling ended with 8th grade; teacher's colleges were available for aspirants to the 10th grade. This education was seen as adequate to produce laborers for the larger economy and teachers for the black community. Though Percy's parents had but a basic education themselves, they scraped together their coins to build a home library for their six children, all of whom would grow up to earn post-graduate degrees. Percy went first when at sixteen years he gained admission to DePauw University, a small liberal arts college in Indiana, as a "sub-freshman" who had not completed high school. DePauw would be life-changing for Julian, as he recalled, "On my first day in College, I remember walking in and a white fellow stuck out his hand and said 'How are you? -- Welcome!' I had never shaken hands with a white boy before and did not know whether I should or not."

Percy Julian was not the only black student at Depauw, but he was surprised to find upon arrival that campus hostel facilities were closed to them. Alone in a strange town, it took young Percy a day and a half before he found a place that would serve him a meal. Eventually, he made a deal with a college fraternity for bed and board in exchange for his service as a waiter. He also took work digging ditches to help pay his tuition. Far behind his white classmates in education, Julian attended the local high school while pursuing his first two years of university studies. He did catch up with his peers and by the end of his fourth year, Percy Julian graduated Phi Beta Kappa and valedictorian: first in his class.

At commencement time, my great-grandmother bared her shoulders, and she showed me, for the first time, the deep scars that had remained from a beating she had received when, one day, during the waning days of the Civil War, she went through the Negro quarters and cried out, "Get yourselves ready, children. The Yankees are coming. The Lord has heard our prayers!" And then, proudly, she took my Phi Beta Kappa key in her hand and said, "This is worth all the scars."

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Julian's dream was to get a PhD in chemistry, following the inspiration of St. Elmo Brady, the first African American to have accomplished the same a few years before. But Julian's professors dissuaded him; they would not recommend him for graduate programs; they showed him letters from top graduate schools expressing concern that he would over-qualify himself as a black man and be unable to find a job. So Julian took a teaching position at Fisk University, a historically black college in Tennessee. Though he was terribly unhappy, he made the best of his role, writing a completely new series of lectures for organic chemistry. When he showed these to William Blanchard, his mentor at DePauw, the professor was so impressed he finally advocated for him to win the Austin Fellowship in Chemistry at Harvard University.

At 21, Julian left for Cambridge where he was again to find himself banned from the dorms. Julian took to graduate school with a passion, cruising through to a masters degree within a year, again distinguishing himself as first in his class and with straight A's. Julian stayed on for some time at Harvard, hoping to complete his PhD, but he was denied a teaching assistantship because Harvard would not permit a black man to teach their white students; in this way, he was denied the opportunity to earn a PhD.

Finally leaving Harvard, Julian took up a string of teaching positions at tiny black colleges; sometimes the only chemistry teacher, he also served as his own janitor and storeroom keeper. Julian chafed against the limitations of his position. But despite the meanness of his circumstances, he spent his time in his labs recreating the experiments of renowned Austrian chemist Ernst Spaeth, synthesizing nicotine and ephedrine, and finally winning the notice of Howard University -- perhaps America's most prominent black university -- who made him head of their chemistry department.

Julian's goal was to conduct research and at Howard he ambitiously devised and built a modern laboratory complex. Very soon he was offered a chance to take leave from his teaching position and pursue a PhD in Spaeth's lab at Vienna's prestigious Chemische Institut, an internationally acclaimed center of natural products chemistry. This would have been truly a dream come true for Julian, who thought, ". publications and research will be, for me, as natural a thing as going to bed and eating a meal."

While Europeans were not enlightened about race when he arrived in '29, the rarity of blacks in Europe perhaps allowed some to grant Julian access to levels of society wholly denied him in the US. During the three years he spent in Austria, Julian not only rose to prominence as a prize student of the formidably demanding Spaeth, he also bloomed as a dapper, self-assured man of the world. Mastering impeccable German, he familiarized himself with the poets and classical music. In turn, he impressed his fellow students in Vienna with his diligence and determination, the breadth of his knowledge in chemistry, and by playing spirituals on the piano.

Prod0774l_2 Happily finding himself drawn into the whirlwind social life of moneyed Jewish intellectuals, with whom he felt an outsider's kinship, he made lifelong friends, some of whom would come to the US and assist him in various ways in later years. He wrote copious letters to his friends and colleagues back home, laced with the youthful braggadocio of a star on the ascendant, going on about the charms of the Viennese women with whom he attended the opera and stayed up into the wee hours drinking wine at sidewalk cafes -- letters that later would be used with some success to thwart his career in the US.

By the time he finished his PhD in '31, he was the third African American to earn a PhD in chemistry. In his published thesis, Spaeth is listed as his co-author.

When Julian returned to his professorship at Howard, his determined goal was to put the school on the map for chemical research, in spite of its disadvantages. His hero, St. Elmo Brady, had spent his career teaching at black universities and had not been able to pursue research; since earning his doctorate, he had not published a single paper. Julian vowed he would "give every damned ounce of my energy towards plans to flood the chemical market with as much research as the day's hours and my strength will allow." He brought his friend and colleague, Josef Pikl, from Vienna, and the two set to work, soon publishing the first scientific papers with a black chemist as senior author. But Julian also made enemies at Howard, brashly involving himself in campus politics and taking up a relationship with Anna Roselle Thompson, a graduate student in sociology and a colleague's wife. When his Viennese letters were then published in the local paper, the scandal forced him to resign. He was now an overqualified black man without a job.

It was then that Blanchard, his former mentor, reached out again to help him, offering him a research fellowship in organic chemistry at DePauw. Julian would not be allowed to teach, and it was quite a leap down from his full professorship at Howard, but he would be able to continue his research. His career in shambles, he and Pikl both accepted.

As a research assistant at a liberal arts college Julian struggled to save money to marry the former Anna Thompson, while she continued her graduate studies back east. Twice they canceled wedding dates. Frustrated, humiliated, he searched for a way to lift himself back to the professional station he had earned. He decided to risk it all on a grand challenge of chemical ingenuity, a scholarly "double or nothing" dare.

In the first half of the twentieth century, chemistry was the brave new world, the glamorous "high-tech" frontier that held the promises of tomorrow. This was especially true in the field of natural products synthesis. Many natural substances had already been isolated from plants and animals which were known have amazing and useful properties that could aid in the treatment of disease or be used to make new materials for living. But purifying these compounds, which naturally occur in tiny amounts, was prohibitively expensive and often required vast amounts of raw material -- even the sacrifice of hundreds of animals -- for a few ounces of isolate.

One highly sought-after compound was physostigmine, a particularly tricky alkaloid from the calabash bean known to help glaucoma patients. The lab of Sir Robert Robinson, "the pope of organic chemistry in England," was making slow but steady progress towards a step-by-step synthesis of of the compound.

Julian published papers in which he belittled Robinson's attempts at synthesis, essentially challenging "the pope" to an academic race for what was -- given the available technology and the complexity of the task at hand -- the holy grail of chemical syntheses at the time. Julian's understanding of chemistry suggested to him a different, more straightforward approach than Robinson's. But both labs reached their desired endpoint at the same time, and it appeared all would be lost for Julian, for the spoils would go to the Englishman who had published first by a nose. Then Julian noticed a problem with Robinson's results and submitted an addendum to his paper, charging that Robinson had failed to produce the compound he intended. Julian was right, of course, and proved it.

Years after his death, the American Chemical society would include Julian's elegant and total synthesis of physostigmine in its list of the 25 greatest chemical achievements in history.

Percy and Anna married that year, and when she returned to the east to continue her studies, he waited for the offers to pour in from top universities in response to his latest success. But it never happened. No predominantly white university would put a black man on the teaching staff. Despite his stunning achievements, the prevailing idea held that blacks were not suited for science, given their innate inferiority, and few were willing to challenge it. When his fellowship research money ran out, Julian started to look for a job in industry. But again and again, he was turned away with apologies when the interviewer saw that he was a black man. Finally, DuPont offered Pikl a job, but not Julian. At Julian's insistence, Pikl accepted.

Julian was eventually offered a job by the Institute of Paper Chemistry in Appleton, Wisconsin. When the town fathers gathered to discuss how they could accommodate the hiring of this accomplished individual in a town where the law clearly stated that no black man could be housed overnight, the proceedings were heard by William O'Brian, who happened to be the vice president of the Glidden company in Chicago, Illinois. O'Brian was impressed by what he heard about Julian and offered him the job of director of their laboratory in Chicago, a historic moment in '36.

Glidden was a maker of paints and varnishes, but Julian's job was to unlock the magic of the soybean for their new Soya Products Division. Since the early '30s, the soybean had been gaining economic importance due in part to its promotion by Henry Ford, the auto maker. Still, no one predicted how its value would soar. In Julian's lab, the "alpha-protein" of the soybean was isolated on an industrial scale, making it the first industrial scale isolation of a plant protein in history. Used in paper coatings and "latex" house paints, it made millions for Glidden. Very quickly, Julian's lab saw the development of new cooking oils and shortenings, lecithin, and other processed food ingredients for Glidden's Durkee foods division, as well as plastics, glues, and livestock and dog foods -- all from the soybean.

As a boss, Julian would forever be remembered as a tireless task master with a strong temper. He also was said to speak and carry himself with a European flourish, swooping around his labs in a white coat. But he was highly respected by those who worked with him and many of his employees were motivated by loyalty. Some followed him even when he later left Glidden to start his own labs. Especially black and female chemists felt enormous gratitude to him for giving them opportunities to work in chemistry when no one else would.

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Glidden rewarded Julian's astonishing success with a sizable raise, such that his wife could come finally come live with him after three years of marriage, instead of having to work as a teacher while she earned her degree. Julian continued to drive himself and his employees, but he was not content with the chemistry he was doing, for Julian's first passion was steroid chemistry, a class of compounds of great fascination and promise. To satisfy himself he took his employees off on the side to work on his own projects involving the steroids: He intended to synthesize the human sex hormones, in particular progesterone.

Like nearly one in six women of the time, his wife had also suffered miscarriages and it was known that progesterone could reduce the risk. Up until this time, steroids were produced by isolation from animal products, but the process was vastly inefficient. Julian believed that he might be able to synthesize animal steroids in the lab by using plant steroids -- much more easily procured -- as the precursors. Julian understood that the face of medicine could be forever changed if he accomplished such a thing. But it was through serendipity that he found the source for his starting materials when one day at Glidden a vat of soybean oil was contaminated with water, causing stigmasterol to crystallize out of solution.

By the time of this accident, a German group had already done the basic chemistry to convert stigmasterol into progesterone. Julian's work was to increase production and yield to industrial scale, no small feat for touchy and complex organic reactions. He soon followed this act with testosterone and other sex hormones. The work of Julian and his rival, Russel Marker, paved the way for the development of a new field of medical research and medicines, including the birth control pill, which Julian would promote as a sensible solution to the population crisis, which was already recognized as threatening the world's future.

By the '40s, Julian's work at Glidden had won him national renown. His alpha-protein from soybean became the chief ingredient in Aero-Foam (aka "bean soup") a fire retardant substance that saved the lives of thousands of servicemen in WWII. He was featured in the Reader's Digest, showered with numerous awards and honorary degrees, and named to the boards of dozens of universities. It was white America's first confrontation with this black hero of science.

Despite his stature in the field, Julian was barred from a major hormone conference held at an exclusive resort in Maryland. When his colleagues protested, he was finally granted admission.

Meanwhile, Anna had given birth to a son and a daughter, and the Julians were ready to move on to a new home. They set their sights on Oak Park, one of the most affluent suburbs of Chicago, where the only black residents were servants and laborers. They did purchase a grand home in the neighborhood of their choice, but the day before they moved in, they were called down by the fire marshall. Arriving at the house, they found a botched attempt at arson: gasoline poured on the wooden floors and up the stairwell, and filling large glass containers that were meant to explode, sending fire up to the second floor and to completely destroy the house.

The Julians would not be manipulated by fear tactics; they cleaned it up and moved in. But these were the post-war years, when people of all kinds were moving up and the ghettos were bursting with people ready to move out; all over the US, blacks encountered violence when they broached white neighborhoods. And a few months later, when Percy and Anna were out of town, dynamite was exploded on their front lawn. Julian was fighting angry and his son recalls that for some time after that, he and his father spent their nights sitting up in a tree in their front yard, a shotgun at the ready. Percy Jr., today a lawyer and Civil Rights activist, remembers fondly that his father and he spent the time talking about the incidents, who would do such things, and "how wrong it was and how stupid is was."

But to the credit of many Oak Park's citizens, a large number of them were horrified by the terrorism. They marched in front of the Julian home demonstrating in favor of letting the family stay in peace; they published their names in a petition denouncing the violence. And though the threats continued for years, the violence stopped.

By the early '50s medical science presented Julian with his next great challenge: the production of cortisone, a steroid that was found almost miraculously to treat the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, a crippling disease of the joints. Within a few years of this discovery, the demand for cortisone made it a substance more valuable than gold, demanding over $4,000 per ounce. The only commercial source of cortisone was through a complex chemical process starting with the bile of slaughtered cattle; thousands of carcasses were needed to produce enough cortisone to treat a single patient for one year.

As the demand for cortisone reached crisis proportions, several teams of chemists jumped into the fray. Again, Julian chose a different path, concentrating, instead, on synthesizing a molecule called Compound S, which occurs naturally in the kidneys, and which he reasoned must be the precursor to cortisone in the body by action of an enzyme.

Julian's bet paid off when a lab at Upjohn found a biological process to convert Compund S into cortisone. But what he hadn't figured on was that this same process could also convert progesterone to cortisone.

In the mid-40s Julian's rival, Russell Marker, had discovered a new source even richer in steroids than the soybean: the Mexican yam. Marker's Mexico-based company, Syntex, was now producing massive quantities of progesterone from this source. Julian went to his superiors at Glidden suggesting that they let him give up soybeans and concentrate on making Compound S from the Mexican yam, which would put Glidden in the running for the mass production of cortisone. But the paint company said no. They had decided all of this was going too far afield; in fact, they were ready to get out of the steroid business, altogether. They sold Compound S to Pfizer and instructed Julian to teach his process to the chemists there. So it was here that Percy Julian would part ways with Glidden, where he left behind over 100 patents, to found Julian Laboratories where he could focus on steroids.

It was a small start, set up in a dilapidated, rat-infested structure. But business was successful, as Julian landed contracts with Upjohn, Ciba, Pfizer, and Merk (not yet the behemoths of today) to produce progesterone. Still, he knew that without the Mexican yam, he would not finally be able to compete with Syntex.

Julian needed to open a plant in Mexico, too, to procure the yams, but he did not have enough capital and banks did not do business with black men at that time. Fortunately, with the help of his friends, private investors, and using his own savings, he was finally able to build Labaratorios de Julian de Mexico, just outside of Mexico City. When he arrived in Mexico to open it, however, the Mexican government refused to grant him a permit to harvest the coveted tuber.

Everything had been gambled on this, and Julian was at a complete loss. But again Julian found himself not alone:

And then a strange thing happened. There was a knock on the door, and in came a man named Abraham Zlotnik, a man that I had helped out of Hitler's Germany. Abe said he was sure the yam grew in Guatemala, and he volunteered to make an expedition for me. I told him I was broke, ruined. I didn't know when I could pay him back. But he said, "You've already paid me back."

Zlotnik found the root in Guatemala. Julian was able to go forward with the production of progesterone from the yam. And when his chemists found a way to quadruple production, and the common wisdom was that this breakthrough could markedly increase their profits, Julian instead dropped the price of his progesterone by ten-fold, from $4,000 to $400 per kilo. According to one of his former employees, "He wanted to make money, but he also wanted things to be available for people." Julian did not want relief from the debilitating effects of rheumatoid arthritis to be affordable only the very wealthy.

In '56, the US senate held public hearings against Syntex, alleging that they had used their influence with the Mexican government to prevent others from gaining access to the Mexican yam. Several companies filed charges and Julian was the star witness in the hearings. As a result of the trial, Julian was able to open his Mexican plant and recover his losses. He would soon become a millionaire and one of the richest black men in America.

In the early 60's, Julian sold his business to Smith, Kline, and French and retired has the president of Julian labs. He busied himself as a grandfather and was in some demand as a public speaker. His lifelong friend, Bernard Witkop, who had known him from his days in Austria, had been lobbying his colleagues for decades to admit Julian into the National Academy of Sciences. The Academy finally accepted him as a member in '73, hardly two years before his death from liver cancer. His good friend and doctor, Risher Watts, tells us that Julian talked chemistry to the end; he was full of plans and did not seem to accept that he was soon to die.

Civi060554l In his life, Percy Julian used his voice to speak against the population crisis and for the advancement of blacks in America. He worked for fair housing, raised funds for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education fund, participated in dozens of civic activities and scientific societies, and had 130 chemical patents to his name. By the time of his death, he had received at least 18 honorary degrees and dozens of accolades including the Springarn Medal Award by the NAACP. Wary of serving as a token black scientist, he had turned down an offer from President Truman wanting him to preside over the newly inaugurated National Science Foundation. In '90, he was inducted posthumously into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Today his work is spoken of as being of "Nobel caliber," though the possibility was not considered during his lifetime. He is dearly remembered as a mentor and humanitarian by those who knew him.


NOVA/PBS Discussion: Do We Need Julian Today ?

Sources for this article and its images:

1. NOVA/PBS: Forgotten Genius
2. DePauw University: Percy Lavon Julian webpages
3. Bernhard Witkop: Biographical Memoirs
4. Science Alive: The Life and Science of Percy Julian
5. Chemical Heritage Foundation Chemical Achievers: Percy Julian and Carl Djerassi
6. Wikipedia: Percy Lavon Julian


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