Chances are you’ve never heard of him, but this African-American was a groundbreaking chemist who received many awards and accolades over his distinguished career. Born in 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama, to parents deeply committed to providing a good education for their children, Julian faced daunting challenges in fulfilling their goal for him. Black and White children attended separate schools at that time, and there were no high schools for Black students in his area. Julian’s parents sent him to DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana where he took evening classes and studied independently to compensate for his lack of a high school education. In keeping with the prejudice of the times, he was not allowed to live in the college dorms or eat meals on campus, having to find accommodation on his own in town. Eventually he found work doing odd jobs at a fraternity house for which he was allowed to sleep in the attic and take meals there. Julian graduated first in his class in 1920. A fellowship enabled him to attend Harvard University where prejudice threw another roadblock his way. It was assumed White students would resent being taught by an African-American so Harvard took away his teaching assistantship forcing him to end his pursuit of a Ph.D. there. Fortunately a few years later, a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship enabled him to study for his Ph.D. at the University of Vienna.
Julian continued to encounter obstructions to his career, being denied both academic and laboratory positions because of his race. Finally his excellent credentials and fluency in German resulted in his being hired by the Glidden Company as director of research at their Soya Products Division in Chicago. There Julian developed a process for isolating soy protein efficiently. This soy protein became a crucial ingredient of a fire-retardant foam used to smother oil and gasoline fires aboard ships. The use of this foam was credited with saving the lives of thousands of sailors and airmen during World War II. In recognition of this achievement, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) awarded Julian the Spingarn Medal, its highest honor, in 1947. Another important achievement was his work on synthesizing progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone from plant sterols isolated from soybean oil. Clinicians were developing many uses for these newly discovered hormones so this was a tremendously profitable development. Julian was also instrumental in improving the process of producing cortisone, greatly reducing the cost of treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. Eventually he left Glidden to found his own company, Julian Laboratories, Inc., where he continued his successful work on synthesizing steroids. Julian received more than 130 patents over his career. He was one of the first African Americans to receive a doctorate in chemistry and in 1973 became the second African-American ever to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. We honor Percy Julian for his steadfast perseverance in the face of tremendous odds and for his many remarkable achievements.