CCB Spotlight: Percy Lavon Julian, A.M. '23

February 4, 2022
Percy Lavon Julian Stamp

CCB is launching, "CCB Spotlight," a new ongoing series of articles that will report on achievements in research, education, career development, and community development among students, alumni, faculty, staff, groups and wider members of the chemistry and chemical biology community at Harvard. To nominate an individual and or a group to be spotlighted, please complete this short form or reach out to Communications Manager Yahya Chaudhry.

In honor of Black History Month, the first article in this series profiles alumnus Percy Lavon Julian, A.M '23 -- a grandson of slaves who overcame systemic racism to become an entrepenurial pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants.

Early Life:

Percy Lavon Julian was born on April 11, 1899, in Montgomery, Alabama. Julian, the son of a railway mail clerk and the grandson of enslaved people, attended segregated schools in Montgomery before he was accepted to DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. Inadequately prepared by his high school,  Julian was accepted as a sub-freshman, requiring him to take high-school courses concurrently with his freshman courses. Julian majored in chemistry despite his father's wishes to pursue medicine, which was seen as a more financially viable career for African American men then.  At the time, African Americans were barred from living in the university's dorms, so Julian found a job at a fraternity house, firing the furnace and doing odd jobs, in exchange for room and board. A talented chemist and an eager student, Julian was elected as a member of both the Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi honor societies. He graduated as the valedictorian his class in 1920 earning his bachelor's degree. Despire his academic success, he was denied admission to doctoral programs at predominantly white universities, so after graduation he taught chemistry at Fisk University, a historically black university.
 

At Harvard:

In 1923, Julian won a scholarship for graduate studies in chemistry at Harvard University.  The chemistry department was renowned for its illustrious faculty, which then included Theodore W. Richards, a consumate Boston Brahmin who had become the first American scientist to recieve the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1914 for "his exact determinations of the atomic weights of a large number of the chemical elements." According to Professor Dudley Herschbach's rememberance, "a large fraction of chemists pursuing the many branches of the field can trace their academic ancestry back to [Theodore W.] Richards or [Arthur A.] Noyes. That outshines the hard-won experimental results amassed by Richards, although in fact many of his thermodynamic and electrochemical data still abide in tables that are widely used."

Awarded an Austin Fellowship, Julian studied biophysics and organic chemistry at Harvard under the celebrated and influential organic chemist Professor Elmer P. Kohler, who was renowned for the creativity of his lab, his skill in fractional crystallization, and his interest "in the mechanisms of organic reactions, an unusual interest in a period in which structural chemistry predominated."  Upon earning his Master of Arts degree within a year, Julian was a awarded a Harvard Fellowship for Studies in Biophysics and Organic Chemistry which enabled him to investigate the chemistry of conjugated unsaturated systems at Harvard until 1926. 

During this period, Julian may have taken a course with James B. Conant, the future President of Harvard University and US Ambassador to West Germany, who was then an associate professor in the chemistry department. Conant's research focused on free radicals, the chemical structure of chlorophyll, and the quantitative study of organic reactions, which attracted a throng of talented graduate students who went on to have brilliant careers. Louis F. Fieser, who later became a professor of chemisty at Harvard and gained fame for his research on blood-clotting agents and napalm, completed his dissertation on the oxidation-reduction potential of quinones under Conant. 

Unable to secure a teaching assistant position at Harvard, Julian returned to teaching at West Virginia State College and Howard University before traveling to Europe for further studies.

Career: 

In 1929 Julian traveled  to Austria to begin his doctoral studies at the University of Vienna on the chemistry of medicinal plants. Within two years, Julian had earned his doctorate and returned to the United States to work at Howard University and later DePauw. 

Physostigmine:

With a collegue he met in Vienna, Josef Pikl, Julian raced to synthesize an alkaloid called physostigmine, which had been used to treat glaucoma since the late 1800's. Physostigmine eases the constriction of outflow channels from the eye’s aqueous humor to relieve high pressure there, which can damage the retina and lead to blindness. Because the calabar bean, the natural source for physostigmine, contains only a tiny amount of the compound, the drug was rare and expensive. Scientists around the world were trying to unravel the complexity of synthesizing this compound, including Robert Robinson, a Nobel Prize laureate. Robinson published first, claiming that he had successfully completed the synthesis of physostigmine, but Julian and Pikl noticed that the melting point for one of Robinson’s intermediate compounds didn’t match its natural counterpart. In 1935, the duo challenged Robinson’s findings and published a new paper detailing their own synthesis of physostigmine, which ultimately proved correct. In 1999, the American Chemical Society recognized their synthesis of physostigmine as a National Historic Chemical Landmark—one of the top 25 accomplishments in American chemical history. 

 

Physostigmine

 

Despite his accomplishments, Julian was denied academic appointments at DePauw and the Universtity of Minnesota, so he left academia for industry, where he continued to face discrimination. In one instance, Julian accepted a researcher position at the Institute of Paper Chemistry in Wisconsin, but he was unable to work there because the city's statutues stated that, “No negro should be bedded or boarded in Appleton overnight,” (NAS Memoir p.18).   In 1935, Juian moved to Chicago, IL where he was hired as the Director of Research in the Soya Products Division of the Glidden Company, one of the largest paint manufacturers in the United States.  During his 18 years at Glidden, Julian was responsible for filing more than 100 patents and increased the value of the company considerably with his inventions.

Percy Lavon Julian

Progesterone:

Julian devised an industrial synthesis process for converting stigmasterol into progesterone by scaling up the process developed a few years earlier by the German group of Butenandt and Fernholz . Using this process, the Glidden Company became a major manufacturer of human sex hormones. By 1940, progesterone produced by Glidden was shipped to the Upjohn pharmaceutical company as the first commercial shipment of sex hormones in the United States. The development of testosterone and birth control pills were soon to follow based on the high throughput synthesis of steroids developed by Julian and his co-workers at Glidden.

 

Progesterone

 

Cortinsone:

Julian became interested in making cortisone more widely available for the public. He devised a plan to create large quantities of cortisone by synthesizing it in the same fashion as progesterone, using an almost identical compound called Reichstein’s Substance S, the cortisone precursor found in the cortex of the adrenal glands. Julian published a paper on a new synthetic pathway for the steroid, Reichstein’s Substance S, from soybeans. Since Julian’s Substance S was available in such large quantities, it was used as the starting material initially to create cortisone on a large scale. Hydrocortisone is still widely produced today from Substance S using methodologies similar to those developed by Julian and his collaborators.

 

Cortisone

While at Glidden, Julian also helped in the synthesis of several additional products found to be useful in a number of industrial applications, inlcuding the fire retardant Aero-Foam that was used during WWII to put out gasoline fires.

Civil Right Advocacy 

In 1950, Julian was named Chicago’s Man of the Year in a Chicago Sun-Times poll, but his home was bombed and burned when he moved to the all-white, upscale suburb of Oak Park.  Julian remained at Glidden until 1954, when he founded his own company, Julian Laboratories, which he eventually sold in 1961 for $2.3 million to Smith, Kline and Upjohn pharmaceutical companies.  In 1964, he organized his own research institute where he continued his experimental work and consulted for chemical companies. In 1973, Julian was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, as only the second African American to achieve this honor. Throughout his life he was socially active in groups seeking to advance conditions for African Americans, helping to found the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of Chicago and serving on the boards of several other organizations and universities. He was also an active as a fund-raiser for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People  for their project to sue to enforce civil rights legislation.  

"Science should not be assessed on the basis of its contribution of mere material things," Julian said. "Our contribution should be found instead in our devotion to the concept of an ordered natural world in which we live.”

Documentary Film:

Julian was the subject of the PBS Nova documentary, "Forgotten Genius," which is currently availble for streaming via WGBH. The two-hour documentary about Julian's life, funded in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF), received a prestigious award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2008. The AAAS Science Journalism Award (SJA) recognizes outstanding reporting for a general audience and honors individuals for their coverage of the sciences, engineering and mathematics.

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