Percy Lavon Julian – Chemist (1899-1975)
Lavon was born on April 11th, 1899 in Montgomery Alabama. His father worked the railroads and his grandfather was a former slave who was freed by the 13th Amendment. Despite the limitations surrounding his family circumstances, education was highly promoted and valued in his family. In fact, his father and mother had met at a higher education school and his grandfather had two fingers missing due to his attempting to learn to write as a slave! Thus, it was no shock that Julian was encouraged to enter the academic world.
At age 17, Julian was accepted into DePauw University as a “sub-freshman.” Due to the poor quality of education he had provided to him, Julian was required to attend classes at another preparatory academy in addition to a full load at DePauw. In the midst of balancing two school loads and a full time job, Julian excelled in school, especially in the field of chemistry. He graduated with Phi Betta Kappa honors and proceeded to win several graduate grants. He continued his education with a masters and eventually received his doctorate. He reached this accomplishment in 1931 at the University of Vienna (DePauw University).
Despite his academic success, Julian was not untouched by the constraints of racial prejudices. With all of his scholarly credentials, Julian struggled to find a job as a professor of chemistry. It was only in 1933 that Julian finally was employed by DePauw University to be a researcher, not a professor. Yet, all was not lost and Julian’s researching position became the launch pad for his career (ACS.org).
In 1935, Julian published his famous “Synthesis of Physostigmine” in the American Chemical Society journal. The synthesis employed the extraction from caliber beans and an 11 step process. The product of physostigmine was critical in the advancement of treating glaucoma disease as it reduced building pressure within the eyeball. Julian’s infamous discovery was enriched by the fact that it was also a victory. Another researching group had also been trying to discover the correct synthesis of physostigmine and even published a journal before him. Julian, as a bold and unknown researcher, called out their error and continued his research in confidence of his process. He was correct! Over his three years at DePauw, Julian published 11 journals (ACS.org).
Come 1936, Julian joined Glidden company where he continued to make chemical discoveries and significant contributions to the world of synthesis. For example, Julian discovered a process by which he could create a foam from the extraction of soy beans. This foam was able to put out oil and gas fires and served as an essential material during the battles of World War II. It is estimated that he had over 100+ chemical patents! He became such a successful researcher that in 1953 he started his own laboratory, “Julian Laboratories.” A few short years later, he sold his company for a comfortable retirement pension of a few billion dollars (PBS).
Julian’s final years were lived in the basking of glory of his many successes during his lifetime. He received academic acknowledgment through grants such as the Rockefeller Foundation grant. Plus, he was admitted membership into the National Academy of Sciences. Overall, Julian held a great chemistry legacy. In addition, his overcoming of the racial limitations of his time has made him a human activist in many people’s minds. It is quite safe to say that by his death on April 19, 1975, Julian had lived a full and productive life as dynamic as the chemicals he came to love (DePauw University).
*Posted by Allison Judy
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