Percy Julian, born April 11, 1899 was one of the premier scientists, inventors, business leaders, and humanists of his time. Being an African American and chemist were only two of the obstacles Julian faced and overcame during his lifetime.
Percy Julian was the eldest of six children belonging to James Summer Julian, a railway mail clerk, and wife Elizabeth Lean Adams. The Julian family resided in the Chicago suburb Village Oak, and was often the targets of racially motivated attacks on them and their home. They were the only black family in the neighborhood. The cultural and religious tradition that the Julian family upheld, paved the way for Julian's new ideas and achievements. The Julian family thrived on hard work, family pride, love, acceptance, high moral standards, good parental example, respect for authority, and God centeredness.
Julian's academic achievements were impressive. Formal education for blacks in Alabama stopped at the eighth grade. Julian made the long trip from Montgomery to Greencastle, Indiana where he attended De Pauw University. His support and tuition came from his earnings as a waiter. Often he worked as a ditch digger during the day and attended classes in the evening. He received his BA in 1920. He then went on to Fisk University where he taught chemistry. He also obtained a Master's degree from Harvard. He was unable to obtain a faculty position at Harvard after receiving his degree, due to the fact that he was a Negro. He instead went to West Virginia State College, at that time an all-black institution, to become a professor of chemistry from 1926 to 1927.
Percy selected Vienna to research the chemistry of natural products. When Percy arrived in Vienna he brought a wealth of knowledge and new equipment. Among these things were ground glass equipment, elaborate laboratory glassware, electric stirrers, and other extravagances not know to the average student.
Julian's most notable achievements in his career came after being hired on as the Director of Research of the Soya Products Division of Glidden. The Soya Division became the most profitable division of Glidden during this point in time. Julian developed an oil-free granular product, which stabilized against rancidity, and is widely sold today in markets as "Lecithin Granules", a food supplement. In 1935, he created synthetic physostigmaine, a drug used to treat glaucoma. From soybean, he created biomedical products, synthesized progesterone and testosterone, a female and male hormone. The production of these drugs in large quantities reduced the cost in treating hormonal deficiencies and other disorders.
Percy Julian demonstrated his chemical competence and creative imagination in applied chemistry by securing a number of patents for the making of desired substances from the plant products, and he also kept up regular publications on pure chemistry, including papers on indoles, sterols and steroids, and conjugated systems. He also founded two firms through which he could apply his scientific knowledge, inventive skill, and judgment to recover large quantities of intermediate substances from Soya beans and other plants.
In recognition of his many scientific achievements, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and obtained many honors. In 1973 he was honored, together with his wife Anna J. Julian, for bringing to life the Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Chicago.
Percy Lavon Julian died on April 19, 1975. In 1976 the village of Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago where Julian and his family resided since 1950, observed his birthday as a holiday. He was a well-respected scientist by his peers and friends.