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Just before the turn of the century, Percy Lavon Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama. He was a bright student, but at that time the city provided no public education for black students after eighth grade. He persisted, however, and entered DePauw University in Indiana as a "sub-freshman." He had to take several classes to get caught up on what his public education had not provided. Yet in 1920, he graduated first in his class with Phi Beta Kappa honors.

He became a chemistry instructor at Fisk University, but in 1923, received an Austin Fellowship in Chemistry and went to Harvard to complete his masters degree. Again he took university teaching positions for a few years before traveling to Austria to obtain his PhD in chemistry from the University of Vienna in 1931. He returned to DePauw to continue his research. His original interest was investigating plant products, especially traditional medicinal plants such as the African calabar bean. In 1935, with Josef Pikl, he first synthesized from this plant a chemical called physostigmine, or esserine, which could treat the sometimes blinding disease of glaucoma by reducing pressure inside the eyeball. This brought him international scientific acclaim, but no professorship.

He left academia to become lab director at Glidden Company. One day in 1939, a water leak in a tank of purified soybean oil created a strange byproduct and gave Julian a surprise insight: the soy sterol that had been created could be used to manufacture male and female hormones, progesterone and testosterone. Progesterone would prove useful in treating certain cancers and problem pregnancies. During World War II, Julian developed a foam from soy protein that could put out oil and gas fires; it was quickly adopted by the military.

In 1948, the Mayo Clinic announced the discovery of a compound that relieved rheumatoid arthritis. It was cortisone, very difficult to come by. Julian got right to work, and by October 1949, his team had created a synthetic cortisone substitute, radically less expensive but just as effective. Natural cortisone had to be extracted from the adrenal glands of oxen and cost hundreds of dollars per drop; Julian's synthetic cortisone was only pennies per ounce.

By making important medical products plentiful and less expensive, Julian accelerated the research and growth of knowledge about them. His techniques and products led directly to the development of chemical birth control and medicines to suppress the immune system, crucial in performing organ transplants.

Julian held more than 100 chemical patents, wrote scores of papers on his work, and received dozens of awards and honorary degrees. He founded The Julian Laboratories, Inc., with labs in the U.S. and Mexico (both purchased by Smith Kline French in 1961) and another chemical plant in Guatemala (owned by Upjohn Company since 1961). In 1951, Julian and his family moved to Oak Park, Illinois, becoming the first black family to live there. His house was firebombed twice, but the community largely backed him and today celebrates his birthday as a holiday.

Information taken from PBS A Science Odyssey–People and Discoveries :


Groundbreaking scientific discoveries are made by people of all types and backgrounds. Northern Kentucky University chooses to celebrate diversity and the discoveries of these brave pioneers.