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This Day In History: April 11th
Renowned chemist and researcher, Percy Julian, spent his career working with the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs. His developments in the biomedical field earned him a reputation for being one of the most influential chemists in American history.
Percy Lavon Julian was born on April 11, 1899, in Montgomery, Alabama. Julian attended DePauw University in Indiana despite not having a complete high school education. He had to take additional classes to get on par with the other students, but he graduated at the top of his class.
He began his post-college career as a chemistry professor at Fisk University. However, in 1923 Julian received a scholarship to attend Harvard University and earned his master’s degree in organic chemistry. He returned to teaching and even became the head of the chemistry department at Howard University.
By the start of 1930s, Julian knew that he wanted to continue his education and enrolled in the University of Vienna where he earned a doctoral degree in chemistry in 1931. While studying abroad, he was able to explore his interest in the chemistry of plants. He returned to DePauw University and continued his study of plants.
In 1935, Julian made a breakthrough in biomedicine. He synthesized physostigmine from a calabar bean to create a drug treatment for glaucoma. This discovery earned him international acclaim, but it did not protect him from American racism. Julian was prohibited from becoming a full time professor due to his race so he decided to stop teaching.
After departing from academia, Julian secured an opportunity with Glidden Company as the lab director. While working for Glidden, he refined a soy protein which became the basis of Aero-Foam, a product used to put out fires.
Julian also worked to extract sterols from soybean oil and synthesized the hormones progesterone and testosterone. His efforts in the synthesis of cortisone also provided a career boost. The development eventually aided in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Although he found success with Glidden, he left the company in 1953 and started Julian Laboratories the following year. Ten years later he created the Julian Research Institute. He became the first Black chemist elected to the National Academy of the Sciences in 1973.
Percy Julian died of liver cancer on April 19, 1975. His legacy was honored with an induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1990.