Dr. Percy Julian confronted racism, inequality and numerous challenges to become one of the most influential chemists in American history.
Overcame doubts to become a chemist
Very few people in Julian’s life encouraged him to follow his dream of becoming a chemist. He was DePauw University’s valedictorian in 1920, but at the time no African-American student, no matter how gifted, was expected to pursue higher education. One school basically told Julian’s professor: “Discourage your bright colored lad. We couldn’t get him a job when he’s done, and it’ll only mean frustration. Why don’t you find him a teaching job in a Negro college in the South? He doesn’t need a Ph.D. for that.”
Julian’s father had always supported his son’s education, but even he questioned if chemistry was the right career path. As Julian’s younger brother, Emerson, later explained, “Dad never wanted us to work for anyone and chemistry was a field which, back in those days, was pretty much barred to our people as a rule—except for teaching positions at the all-black schools. He figured that the wisest thing for Percy to do was prepare himself for medicine and set up practice. It was a means of independence.”
For a while it looked like his father had accurately assessed Julian’s situation, as his son ended up teaching at Fisk University. But then Julian found his way to Harvard, where he got his master’s in chemistry in 1923. Unfortunately, Julian encountered racist resistance there as well; denied a teaching assistantship, he still couldn’t pursue his Ph.D.
It wasn’t until 1929 that Julian was able to start on his doctorate at the University of Vienna in Austria. However, he felt the wait had been worth it: “For the first time in my life, I represent a creating, alive, and wide-awake chemist.”
Proved himself better than the best
In the early 1930s, Julian, along with research partner Josef Pikl, undertook the challenging synthesis of physostigmine. It was a daring move because one of the world’s most respected chemists—Sir Robert Robinson of Oxford University—was also working on synthesizing the alkaloid.
For Julian, this synthesis wouldn’t just be a remarkable achievement, it would rescue his career. He’d returned to a post at Howard University after getting his Ph.D., but when letters containing details of his dating life in Vienna and uncensored thoughts about his colleagues became public, followed by an accusation that he’d been having an affair with the wife of his laboratory assistant, Julian had been forced to resign. He was lucky to find work as a research fellow at DePauw, but it was a temporary position.
Given Julian’s career difficulties, it was devastating when Robinson’s researchers reported that they’d succeeded in a complete synthesis. Then Julian realized that Robinson’s work contained a mistake.
Pikl was worried about declaring this publicly, as their careers would be destroyed if Julian turned out to be wrong. But Julian was sure he was right, and wrote an addendum saying so. One of Julian’s Harvard professors, E.P. Kohler, sent a telegram that highlighted the risks his former research assistant was facing: “I pray that you are right. If not, the future may be dark for you.”
Fortunately for Julian—and for glaucoma patients, who were treated with physostigmine—his own steps for synthesizing the molecule were shown to be correct in 1935. Not only had he achieved a chemical breakthrough, Julian had left a more celebrated chemist in the dust.
A lab where anyone with talent was welcome
Synthesizing physostigmine was a milestone in chemistry. Julian had done the research at DePauw, and could rightly expect to be appointed as a professor there. However, as he would later note, he “had every qualification except the right colored skin.”
Needing a permanent job, Julian turned his attention to private industry. Though many companies balked at the idea of engaging a black scientist, he was hired by the Glidden Company in 1936, where he would head research for the Soya Products Division. His work with soybeans led Julian to success after success, and patent after patent. Among his notable achievements was a key protein for Aero-Foam—nicknamed “bean soup”—a fire retardant that saved many lives. Julian also came up with methods for synthesizing testosterone and progesterone, as well as an affordable way to produce the steroid cortisone (which was in demand as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis).
Julian had an additional accomplishment: open-minded hiring practices. As he explained in a 1947 interview, “We have a mixture of races and religions and we work together and get along. If American democracy won’t work anywhere else, we are determined to make it work here in our laboratory.”
Stood up to life-threatening racism
Success in industry meant Julian was able to purchase a home in the tony Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Illinois, in 1950. But no matter how successful he was, Julian and his family would still have to deal with people who didn’t want their neighborhood to be integrated.
An arson attempt was made on their new home before the family had even moved in. Refusing to be intimidated, the Julians still took possession (while making sure their house was guarded). Life in Oak Park was peaceful enough until June of 1951, when a bomb was thrown into their garden. It went off close to where Julian’s two children were sleeping inside, though fortunately neither child was injured (Julian and his wife were away at the time, traveling to attend his father’s funeral).
Julian refused to back down after this violence. He felt that “[t]he cowardly thing to do would be to move away to some neighborhood where colored people are not resented.” Instead, he declared, “This is an issue which is fundamental to this nation’s future. I’m ready to give up my science and my life to bring a halt to this senseless terrorism.”
Many of Oak Park’s citizens rallied behind the family, but threats continued to arrive. In 1954, Julian was told to move or he would never see his children again. He passed the threats to the FBI, but the scientist continued to stand his ground: “This is our house and we’re going to stay.”
Achieved his goal of making lives better
Shortly before his 1975 death, Julian said, “I have had one goal in my life, that of playing some role in making life a little easier for the persons who come after me.”
His scientific breakthroughs alone accomplished that. But Julian also wanted life to improve for African Americans. In a 1947 interview, he’d noted, “The Negro is a member of a subject race in America. He is a citizen, but denied a citizen’s rights—even those in the Constitution. He is denied economic opportunity, usually even the right to earn a decent living.”
Though he did not agree with the tactics of every civil rights leader, Julian became a supporter of the movement. By 1967, he was raising funds for the NAACP so that it could continue its fight for equality in courts across the country.
Julian may have believed “that my own good country robbed me of the chance for some of the great experiences that I would have liked to live through. . .I have been, perhaps, a good chemist, but not the chemist that I dreamed of being.” However, his actions would help ensure that other talented African Americans faced fewer obstacles in the future.