Percy Lavon Julian was born in Montgomery,
Alabama on April 11, 1899. Percy's mother encouraged her children to
pursue higher education and all six children received advanced degrees.
Percy graduated from State Normal School for Negroes in
1916 at the top of his class and enrolled at DePauw University
in Indiana. DePauw required Percy to take high school courses in addition to
his college subjects because the education he had received at State Normal
was considered second rate. In addition to this full course load, he
also worked to support himself. He was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa
Honor Society and graduated as the Class Valedictorian in 1920.
Initially Percy was snubbed in his quest for a
doctorial degree although white classmates with lower academic standing were
granted fellowships. He began teaching at Fisk University in
Tennessee and continued to work at obtaining a fellowship.
Percy received an Austin Fellowship in 1922 and
began his studies under E.P. Kohler at Harvard University.
He received his Master's Degree in 1923 as an organic chemist and accepted a
position at West Virginia State College for Negroes. In
1927 he became the head of the chemistry department at Howard University.
Percy attended the University of Vienna
in Austria in 1929 under a Rockefeller fellowship. In Vienna he studied under
the world renowned scientist, Ernst Spath. While attending the University, he
aided Spath in his search for a method of synthesizing hormones and vitamins.
This study so interested Percy that it became his life's work. He received his
doctorate in 1931.
Percy returned to DePauw and continued his
research into synthesizing compounds from common plants such as the African
calabar bean. In 1935 he synthesized a chemical called physostigmine, which
was used in treating glaucoma by reducing pressure inside the eyeball. (Physostigmine
is currently being explored for use in treating Alzheimer's Disease.)
Percy left DePauw in 1935 and went to work for
Glidden Company in Chicago as their chief chemist and the Director of their
Soya Product Division. He married Anna Johnson on December 24, 1935.
Percy invented a way to inexpensively develop male and female hormones from
soy beans. These hormones helped to prevent miscarriages in pregnant women and
were used to fight cancer. Julian developed Aero-Foam from soy
protein during World War II which was in major use by the Navy during the war
as a flame retardant.
Cortisone was discovered in 1948. It is a
compound that is useful in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, however it
was very expensive, costing several hundred dollars for a small drop. Percy
created a synthetic version from soy products which cost less than a
nickel an ounce.
He was named Chicagoan of the year in 1950.
Despite all that Percy had accomplished for people, when he moved into the
white neighborhood of Oak Park, his home was set on fire and a year later in
1951 dynamite thrown from a vehicle exploded beneath the bedroom window of his
In 1954 Percy established Julian Laboratories
in Oak Park. The plant produced his synthetic cortisone. He sold the Oak Park
plant in 1961 for 2.4 million dollars and founded the Julian Research
Institute in 1964.
Percy Lavon Julian died of liver cancer on
April 19, 1975 in Chicago, Illinois.