Dr. Percy Julian: An American Chemist

Percy Julian was born on April 11, 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama.  

His parents sent him to school in Montgomery, AL, but there were no educational opportunities for black people beyond a certain grade in Montgomery.  While in school, however, Percy was encouraged to go to DePauw University (which is in Greencastle, Indiana) to continue his studies.


Percy Julian jumped at the chance.  When he left Montgomery for DePauw his family came down to the train station to see him off.  Among those standing at the train station was his grandfather.  His grandfather had been formerly enslaved and, reportedly, had had two of his fingers cut off for learning to write.

When Percy got to DePauw he found that the education he received in Montgomery did not prepare him for the university work he had to do in Indiana.  

He then began to attend a preparatory school, while he was taking his college courses and while he worked in a fraternity house to pay for his college expenses.

Percy Julian excelled at DePauw University, he graduated at the top of his class (as the valedictorian of his class in 1920) with a degree in chemistry and was elected to the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa honor society.

Even though Percy Julian excelled at DePauw University he was denied admission into the graduate school due to his race.

Julian then went on to teach chemistry at Fisk University and later attended Harvard University where he earned a masters degree in chemistry.  

From there he went on to teach at the historically black West Virginia State College (this is the same school that Katherine Johnson attended before starting her career at NASA).  

Julian later taught at Howard University and was finally able to complete his doctorate at the University of Vienna, in Austria, in 1931. 

He returned to the United States, and to his alma matter DePauw University, in the early 1930s.

He returned to DePauw University as a research fellow and began to mentor seniors who were majoring in chemistry.  There he did some of his most important work.

He and a colleague, named Josef Pikl, were working on a project to synthesize physostigmine from the Calabar bean.

In April of 1935 Percy Julian and Josef Pikl published a study entitled, “Studies in the Indole Series V. The Complete Synthesis of Physostigmine (Eserine).”

This paper explained how he and Pikl were able to synthesize physostigmine from the Calabar bean.  This was a remarkable accomplishment because physostigmine could be used to treat the devastating disease of glaucoma (which is a condition that is characterized by the increased build up of fluid in the front part of the eye, leading to damage to the optical nerve and loss of vision).  While physostigmine was known to the medical world, the synthesis of it and the process Julian and Pikl used to isolate it was seen as a major advancement.

In fact, the American Chemical Society, in 1999, labeled this discovery as one of the seminal achievements in all of American chemistry and designated this research as a National Historic Chemical Landmark. 

Despite the recognition and fame that this discovery brought Julian and Pikl, Percy Julian was not given a professorship at DePauw University after his fellowship expired.  Julian also experienced a tough time finding employment despite this remarkable achievement.

After experiencing some trouble, he was able to land a research job at the Glidden Company in their Soya Products Division (soy products).  He eventually became the director of their research division, where he made other very important discoveries.

Julian developed a process for isolating soy bean protein which could be used to coat and size paper and to create cold-water paints.

Julian’s discoveries also contributed to the development of a fire-extinguishing foam which could be used in an emergency situation.  During World War II this Aero-Foam was used to put out gasoline fires on aircraft carriers.

Not only did Percy Julian contribute to important products, he continued to make contributions in the area of medicine.

One day an accident took place involving a large container of soybean oil and Julian was called by workers to come take a look at it.

He noticed a white solid at the bottom of the container and recognized that sterols from the soybeans had been isolated in the solid.  Remembering his research from DePauw University, Julian began working on the sterols.  He created a process that led the widespread availability of human sex hormones, based on the work he did with sterols.  Hormones, such as progesterone, could now be made available in large quantities.

This process also led to millions of dollars a year in sales for Glidden.

But, Julian was not finished.

Cortisone had been found to be effective in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, but it was costly and expensive to make.

Julian decided to work on a substance called Reichstein’s Substance S.  Substance S is found in the adrenal cortex along with cortisone.  Substance S is very similar to cortisone, with only one oxygen atom’s difference.

From this substance Percy Julian was able to synthesize cortisone and hydrocortisone—developing a way to make cortisone more widely available at only a fraction of the cost.

His work led to his induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, in 1990, for his preparation of cortisone (which can be found in the U. S. Patent #2,725,339).

Dr. Percy Julian was truly a remarkable chemist.  Many scientists are honored to be a part of just one major breakthrough, but Percy Julian’s work led to increased treatments for glaucoma, the development of Aero-Foam, the widespread availability of human hormones, and the low-cost availability of hydrocortisone.


© 2017, Red and Black Ink, LLC.


About ASU.  Alabama State University.  Accessed July 28, 2017.  http://www.alasu.edu/about-asu/index.aspx

Julian Center.  DePauw University.  Accessed July 28, 2017. http://www.depauw.edu/virtual-tour/location/13/

Julian, Percy and Pikl, Josef.  “Studies in the Indole Series.  V. The Complete Synthesis of Physostigmine (Eserine).”  Journal of the American Chemical Society. April 1935. 57(4), pp. 755 - 757. 

Forgotten Genius.  Library Resource Kit: Who Was Percy Julian?  NOVA. PBS program (2007), http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/julian/lrk-whowasjulian-exp.html

“Contributions of Percy Julian ’20 to Science and Black History Noted.” Milwaukee Times.  February 18, 2003.  http://www.depauw.edu/news-media/latest-news/details/12504/

“Percy L. Julian and the Synthesis of Physostigmine.  National Historic Chemical Landmark.”  Dedicated April 32, 199 at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.  American Chemical Society.  Accessed July 28, 2017.  https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/julian.html

Percy L. Julian.  National Academy of Sciences. http://www.nasonline.org/member-directory/deceased-members/20001466.html

The Life of Percy Lavan Julian ’20.  DePauw University.  News & Media.  February 19, 2009.  Accessed July 28, 2107.  http://www.depauw.edu/news-media/latest-news/details/22969/

Danita Smith