Percy Julian (1899-1975)

A research chemist best known for the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants, Percy Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1899. Being of African-American descent, Julian faced racial discrimination and prejudice from the earliest stages of his education. Barred from the white-only high school, he attended the State Normal School for Negroes before achieving a place at DePauw University. In the following years Julian studied for a master’s degree in chemistry at Harvard University, where he was excluded from teaching positions and therefore unable to complete his doctorate. However, he went on to attend the University of Vienna, where he received a PhD.

Between 1932 and 1936, Julian directed the chemistry department at DePauw. Here he made the seminal discovery that physostigmine, a drug that forms naturally in the adrenal glands, lowers eye pressure in victims of glaucoma.

Julian then became profoundly interested in how naturally occurring compounds with therapeutic benefit could be created artificially. He attempted to isolate simple compounds in natural products, investigate how those compounds were naturally altered into vitamins and hormones, and create the compounds in the laboratory. Julian then received a job at the Glidden Company, a supplier of soya bean oil products. Here he took charge of the production of industrial-grade isolated soy protein, which has a number of key applications. Most importantly, it is a component of the ‘aero foam’ used by the US Navy to fight fires aboard ships.

In 1940, Julian began work on the synthesis of human sex hormones from plant sterols isolated from soya bean oil. Julian’s work made possible the production of these hormones on an industrial scale, thus reducing the cost of treating hormonal deficiencies. Julian went on to develop a synthetic substitute for cortisone, which greatly relieved pain in sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis. In 1953, Julian founded his own research firm, Julian Laboratories, which cultivated Mexican yams for further research into and production of synthetic hormones.

Throughout his career, Julian faced prejudice and fought hard to overcome racial discrimination within certain communities. However, within his field he was recognised as a pioneer. He was the first African-American chemist inducted into the US National Academy of Sciences.