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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Percy Lavon Julian, the hormone man

     Percy Lavon Julian grew up in segregated America and faced racial prejudice all his life from waiters would not serve him, to the president of Harvard who would not let him pursue a doctorate. Segregation was as American as baseball in the first half of the 20th century, from Montgomery, Alabama, to Appleton, Wisconsin. In elite Oak Park, Illinois, outside of Chicago, they tried to bomb his house before he moved in on Thanksgiving Day 1950, and seven months later they tried to dynamite the place. Julian and his son took turns guarding the house while sitting in a tree with a shotgun.

     Despite these obstacles of prejudice, Julian earned 138 patents over the years
     Julian pioneered the development of synthetic hormones and steroids, which enabled other researchers to develop the birth control pill -- which is ironic since he researched synthetic hormones in an attempt to solve his wife's apparent infertility. He is best known for synthesizing physostigmine, a drug which treats glaucoma.
     Born on April 11, 1899, Julian was the oldest of the six children of a railroad postal worker and his wife, a schoolteacher. Both were children of slaves as well as graduates of Alabama State. It was the latter that they bore in mind as they raised their children to pursue education.
     He enrolled in DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, as one of its few black students. DePauw classified Julian as a "sub-freshman" as he needed to take remedial courses to catch up with his peers. The campus was segregated. Julian found an off-campus boarding house where he could stay but it was several days before he could find a place to eat. He paid his way by working in a fraternity house as a waiter, as well as running the furnace and doing other odd jobs.
     Nevertheless, he graduated as the valedictorian of the Class of 1920. He learned German, which turned out to be his career maker.
     After college, he taught chemistry at Fisk University, a black college founded by the United Church of Christ after the Civil War in Nashville, Tennessee. However, Harvard accepted him for a master's program, but not a PhD. He taught at Howard University, another black college. But in 1929, the Rockefeller Foundation picked up the tab for his doctoral studies at the University of Vienna. He spoke German, after all. In Austria, for the first time, people treated him right. Colleagues invited him to parties and took him to the opera.
     With a doctorate in hand, he returned to Howard as only the third African-American with a Ph.D in chemistry. He began an affair with Anna Roselle Thompson, the wife of his research assistant. After Julian fired the assistant, he sued Julian for alienation of affections. This dashed his career at Howard, but oddly opened the door for becoming a black professor at a white university. His alma mater, DePauw, hired him to teach organic chemistry. He married Anna on December 24, 1935.
     But when DePauw refused him a full professorship, he sent out his resumes to industry. DuPont would not hire him because he was black. The Institute of Paper Chemistry in Appleton, Wisconsin, could not hire him because the town had a law against Negroes spending the night there. But Glidden Paint in Cleveland needed an expert in soya as it had just purchased a plant from Germany, and Julian not only knew chemistry, he knew German. The job was in Chicago. He quickly developed soy-based alternative feedstocks for paint and glue. He helped develop a firefighting foam for the ships in World War II and a lead-free paint.
     He also pursued synthetic hormone research. Julian's motive was personal as he wanted to develop a fertility drug, as he and his wife seemed unable to conceive children. However, in 1940, they had a son, Percy Lavon Julian Jr., who became a civil rights lawyer. In 1944, they had daughter Faith Roselle Julian.
     Sex hormone research was in its infancy. Julian industrialized its production from soy, producing 100 pounds a day, worth $10,000. Over time, he developed cheaper and ore efficient production of various hormones. The first pound of progesterone Glidden produced cost Upjohn $63,000.
     In 1950, the Julians became the first African-Americans to live in Oak Park, an upscale liberal enclave that once was home of Frank Lloyd Wright. Twice vigilantes tried to bomb him. The second time stoked a backlash, as the community rallied behind him. Julian raised a million dollars to lobby for legislation that promoted civil rights.
     Glidden decided to leave the synthetic hormone business and Julian struck out on his own in 1953. Mexico was the center of its production. He battled the giant Syntex for years before selling the company for $2.3 million in 1961. Syntex was too efficient, dropping prices 250-fold. But his peers recognized Julian's contribution to synthetic hormones by electing him to the National Academy of Sciences in 1973.
     One oddity is that while he entered this field seeking a fertility drug, he helped pave the way for The Pill, which was introduced in 1960.
     He died of liver cancer on April 19, 1975, at age 76. The grandson of a slave had made it despite very long odds. He became the first black chemist admitted to the National Academy of Sciences.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting to read the comment about Appleton and the IPC. I happen to work in Appleton, lived a few miles south all my ,,uh, wait, never mind how many years.

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