Black History Month: Dr. Percy Julian

African-American chemist Percy Julian was a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs such as cortisone, steroids and birth control pills.  A steroid chemist and an entrepreneur, Percy Julian ingeniously figured out how to synthesize important medicinal compounds from abundant plant sources, making them more affordable to mass-produce.  Dr. Percy Lavon Julian was a trailblazing chemist whose discoveries improved and saved countless lives. 

The grandson of slaves, Julian grew up at a time when African Americans faced extraordinary obstacles. Yet Julian refused to let racism prevent him from becoming one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century, as well as a leader in business and civil rights.

In 1935, in Minshall Laboratory, DePauw alumnus Percy L. Julian (1899-1975) first synthesized the drug physostigmine, previously only available from its natural source, the Calabar bean. His pioneering research led to the process that made physostigmine readily available for the treatment of glaucoma. It was the first of Julian’s lifetime of achievements in the chemical synthesis of commercially important natural products.

Percy Julian was born on April 11, 1899 in Birmingham, Alabama, one of six children. His father, a railroad mail clerk, and his mother, a school teacher stressed education to their children. This emphasis would ultimately prove successful as two sons went on to become physicians and three daughters would receive Masters degrees, but it was son Percy who would become the most successful of the children. Sources: PBS.org, Chemical Heritage Foundation, American Chemical Society, biography.com

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