Dr Percy Julian Lavon – Chemist

Thanks to the amazing grant of £1000 given to us by the Royal Astronomical Society, we’ve been able to hire writers for our blog posts on scientists of colour. This incredible article was written by the wonderful Eyitoritse Mojuetan! Find them on instagram @tori_mojuetan and find them making their own lifestyle podcast, No Wahala, Inshallah!

Percy Lavon Julian synthesizing chemicals at DePauw Universit

Name: Percy Lavon Julian

Life: 11th April 1899 – 19th April 1975 (died at age 76)

Born: Montgomery, Alabama, United States of America


B. A.: DePauw University

M.S.: Harvard University

Ph.D.: University of Vienna

Occupation: Chemist, pharmaceutical researcher

As one of the most influential chemists of the 20th century, and perhaps one of the most formidable, Percy Lavon Julian actively challenged academia to see him as more than the grandson of a slave. As a young African American man living in the brutally segregated Deep South, he fought against the ways in which Jim Crowe laws and predominantly white academic institutions sought to stifle his brilliance based purely on the colour of his skin.  

Who was Percy Lavon Julian?

Percy Lavon Julian was, and remains, a multifaceted African American icon. In a commemorative pamphlet celebrating Julian’s 1935 synthesis of Physostigmine, the American Chemical Society described him as, “a pathbreaking synthetic chemist, a successful industrial research director, and a wealthy businessman”. He is best known for his ground-breaking work in steroids that allow for increased access to a range of medications and his isolation of soybean proteins that significantly reduced manufacturing costs in industrial applications. Julian was also the first Black chemist to be elected to the National Academy of scientists in the USA and was one of the first African American millionaires.


Early Life

He was born to James and Elizabeth Julian on the 11th of April 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama, the first of six children. His father, a clerk for USPS, and his mother, schoolteacher, were wildly supportive of the Julian children’s academic endeavours. Julian’s grandfather had lost two fingers as punishment for learning to read and write as a slave, and consequently James and Elizabeth, both of whom graduated from Alabama State University, did everything they could to ensure that their children were educated as well.

For Julian, the experiences of his Grandfather were not that far removed from his own. In recalling memories of his childhood, Julian mentioned walking home from school and finding a black man lynched from a tree. When he first expressed his interest in chemistry, his well-meaning father gently dissuaded him, believing that as chemistry was a field dominated by white men, as was most of science at the time, Percy would never find a job.

The desegregation of schools began only in 1952. As such, Julian, like many other African American children in Alabama at the time, was forced to finish his primary education at 13. Although, he attended a 2-year finishing school, the same one his parents had attended, he was still woefully under prepared for University.



In 1920 Julian was accepted to DePauw University to study chemistry. As a result of his limited primary and high school education, the University accepted him as a sub-freshman. This meant that in addition to his University courses, he also had to complete high school courses at night. On top of this, Julian struggled to find his place at University. Although DePauw accepted students of colour, on campus living was strictly for white students only, thus forcing Julian to find an off-campus hostel to live in. The hostel refused to feed Julian, and it took him several days before he could find somewhere that would serve him.

In the face of all these challenges, Julian graduated first in his class with Phi Beta Kappa honours. Despite this, DePauw University rejected not only his application to continue onto a master’s in chemistry, but his application to join the faculty. As such, Julian took his talent elsewhere and began working at Fisk University as a chemistry professor. Harvard University began to take note of his brilliance and offered him a scholarship complete his master’s degree. However, as Harvard did not allow African Americans to complete doctorates at the university, Julian moved to work at Howard, the most prominent African American University at the time. In 1931 Julian moved to Vienna, Austria to receive his PhD from the University of Vienna.

From 1932 to 1935, under the tutelage of his undergraduate mentor, Julian worked as a research fellow at his alma mater. He worked alongside Josef Pikl, a colleague from the University of Vienna, and went on to produce many high-quality research papers. However, in 1935, the DePauw board of trustees refused to grant an extension to Julian’s research funding. Once again, Julian had to leave DePauw to pursue his dreams.


Percy Lavon Julian & The Calabar Bean

During his research fellowship, Julian worked on synthesising a range of chemicals from the Calabar bean. These derivatives had endless uses in decreasing the cost of manufacturing a range of drugs that would aid in symptom reduction for disorders such as glaucoma and Alzheimer’s disease. From this bean, Julian was able to create the first total synthesis of the alkaloid, physostigmine. Julian and Pikl, over the course of three years, assembled physostigmine through 11 synthetic steps. One of the intermediate compounds, d,l-eserethole, was supposedly synthesised by a group of chemists at Oxford University before Julian and Pikl had synthesised the molecule themselves. As this was the 1930s, there were severe limitations in the chemical analytics that would have aided in the determining if the Oxford chemists were correct. Despite this, Julian was sure of his process, and wrote a paper explaining that the Oxford chemists had synthesised something altogether different.  

            While synthesising physostigmine, Julian made another ground-breaking discovery; he had discovered “small crystals of the hydrate of stigmasterol in the acid wash oil extracted from the beans”. The chemical structure of stigmasterol is incredibly similar to that of biologically significant compounds such as sex hormones and cholesterol. Julian’s discovery made strides in the understanding of steroid synthesis and pushed plants into the spotlight as cheaper alternatives for chemical synthesis.

Later work

Following termination of his research fellowship at DePauw, Julian lost a research opportunity due laws “forbidding the housing of a Negro overnight.” He was at his wits’ end. Several industrial companies, although highly impressed with his resume, rejected his application upon seeing the colour of his skin. In 1936, however, Julian was offered a position at Glidden in Chicago. It was here that Julian began the second phase of his scientific discoveries. In 1950, after moving to an all-white suburb, his home was bombed and burned.

            Yet, in the face of this violence, Julian remained resilient. He continued his soybean protein research and was able to produce a staggering number of patents and products with the company such as paper coating and fire-retardant foam. But he did not stop there, in his later work he synthesised yohimbine alkaloids, and determined the metabolism of tryptophan, one of the nine essential amino acids.   


Later Life & Legacy

In 1953, he established Julian laboratories, a pharmaceutical company that he ended up selling for over $2,000,000 in 1961. As a staunch advocate for human rights, He was also involved in various social enterprises. He was an active fundraiser for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), and in his later life he founded the Julian Research Institute, a non-profit organisation that continues to do great work today in encouraging young people of colour to take part in STEM learning. In 1973 Julian was awarded the National Academy of Sciences prize, he was the first African American to be given such an accolade. Up until his death in 1975 Julian worked as a consultant for various pharmaceutical companies and continued his lifelong love of scientific research.


Author’s Note

As a young black woman currently making her way through the arduous process of becoming a doctor, I find Percy Lavon Julian to be a true inspiration. He was continually forced to prove his legitimacy in spaces that he had every right to be, but in which he was never welcomed. His resilience against racism and violence, is indicative of a strength that all people of colour in STEM possess to fight against the broken discriminatory system that we have all been subjected to. Although, I do realise that his struggles would have been doubled, if not tripled, had he been a woman; Percy Lavon Julian gives me hope that, while I may struggle to gain my seat at the table, my struggle might ensure that no one must struggle after me.

[1] 📹 https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/video/percy-julian-20th-century-scientist/ (Video)

[2] 💻 https://www.biography.com/scientist/percy-julian (Website)

[3] 💻 https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/julian.html#percy-lavon-julian

[4] 💻 Kenar, J. (2008). Percy lavon julian (1899-1975). Inform, 19(6), 411-414. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.virtual.anu.edu.au/trade-journals/percy-lavon-julian-1899-1975/docview/223620504/se-2?accountid=8330

[5] 💻 https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=pur1.32754075477178&view=1up&seq=1 (Congress Proceedings)

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