Percy Lavon Julian, an American research chemist pioneered the industrial scale chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs such as cortisone, steroids and birth control pills from natural soya products.
Education and Life
Percy Lavon Julian, born on 11 April 1899, hailed from Montgomery, Alabama and he was the eldest of six children. His mother was Elizabeth Lena Julian Adams, a teacher and his father was James Sumner Julian, a postal clerk. Both his parents were graduates of a school that was to become Alabama State University.
In college, Percy Lavon Julian attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. The college had limited slots for African-Americans and Julian lived in a self-catering dorm off-campus due to race segregation laws. Julian graduated from DePauw in 1920 first in his class, with Phi Beta Kappa honors.
Julian wanted to obtain a doctorate in chemistry but he found out that it wasn’t straightforward for African-Americans. He initially obtained a position as a chemistry instructor at Fisk University. Julian persevered and in 1923 moved to Harvard with an Austin Fellowship but the school withdrew his teaching assistantship due to concerns that their white students wouldn’t be happy being taught by a black man.
Disappointed, Julian worked as an instructor at Harvard and in 1929 he received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to study at the University of Vienna. He earned his doctorate in chemistry there in 1931 and returned to America to teach at Howard University.
The Turning Point
A scandal broke out when indiscreet letters he had written in Vienna were published and Julian resigned his position in 1932. Julian’s mentor, William Blanchard, served as a savior and threw him a life-line that he so desperately needed. Julian was offered a position at DePauw University in 1932, teaching organic chemistry. Josef Pikl, a student from the University of Vienna, was asked by Julian to visit the US. In 1935 the pair completed their research which involved the total synthetic synthesis of the chemical “physostigmine”, which occurs naturally in a tropical African bean, and is used to treat the effects of glaucoma. They also confirmed the chemical’s structural formula.
Julian also extracted stigmasterol, a chemical that could serve as raw material to make human steroidal hormones.
His Work on Steroids and Hormones
Julian was denied a professorship at DePauw for racial reasons, so he then looked for work in Appleton, Wisconsin but was denied again since the city had a law against African-Americans staying in the city after sundown.
Instead, Julian considered undertaking his own research; he investigated obtaining soybean oil from the Glidden Company in Chicago in 1936 and intended to use the oil as the starting point to synthesize human steroidal sex hormones. This was a field he was interested in as his wife was suffering from infertility.
Glidden Company was one of America’s largest paint, varnish, and chemical manufacturers. On hearing Julian was looking for employment they offered him a position as a chief chemist and director of the company’s soya-products division.
In 1940 Julian started working on synthesizing estrogen, testosterone and progesterone from soybean oil using a foam technique which that he had devised and patented. Hs work enabled industrial scale production of these hormones and the resulting economies of scale drove down the cost of many drugs.
During the Second World War Julian invented Aer-O-Foam from soy protein that was used to extinguish oil and gas fires by the U.S. Navy.
In 1949 Julian developed an improvement in the process of producing cortisone, which is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and by 1952 Julian also devised a new multistep process to synthesize the closely related compound, cortexolone.
In 1953, Julian founded his own research firm, Julian Laboratories, Inc which specialized in the production of synthetic cortisone. The company also soon began to use Mexico’s wild yams instead of soya beans to synthesize their products. Julian sold his company in 1961. He then founded the Julian Research Institute, a nonprofit organization that he ran for the rest of his life.
Julian married Anna Roselle in 1935 and they had two children together, Percy and Faith.
Percy Lavon Julian died on the 19th of April 1975, aged 76 of cancer. He was buried at the Elm Lawn Cemetery in Illinois.