Thursday, April 17, 2008

Percy Lavon Julian...chemist

Percy Lavon Julian

Gender has given science a bad reputation as previously exemplified by articles on
Lise Meitner , Rosalind Franklin , Mileva Maric [Einstein's first wife] , and Mary Tsingou [Menzel] and race is not immune either. Such is the case with Percy Julian an organic chemist that provided humanity with many medicinal drugs including cortisone.

Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama to Elizabeth (1878-?) and James Sumner Julian I (1871–?). James was a railway mail carrier for the United States Post Office, and his father was a slave. Elizabeth worked as a school teacher. He grew up in the time of Jim Crow. Among his childhood memories was finding a lynched man hung from a tree while walking in the woods near his home. While it was generally unheard of for African Americans at the time to pursue an education beyond the 8th grade, Julian's father steered all of his children towards higher education. Julian attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. At the time, the college accepted very few African American students and the town was segregated. Julian was not allowed to live in the college dormitories and initially stayed in an off campus boarding home where he was refused meals. It was days after his arrival before Julian found an establishment that would allow him to eat. Ultimately, he took work firing the furnace and doing other odd jobs in a fraternity house and, in return for his service, he was allowed to sleep in the basement and eat. He graduated from DePauw in 1920 Phi Beta Kappa and valedictorian. By 1930 Julian's father had moved the entire family to Greencastle, Indiana so that all his children could attend college at DePauw, he was still working as a railroad postal clerk.

Julian wanted to obtain his doctorate in chemistry but learned it would be difficult for an African American. He was denied access to American doctorate programs because they felt that the only jobs obtainable post-graduation would be as instructors at all black colleges. After graduating from DePauw, Julian became a chemistry instructor at Fisk University. He then received an Austin Fellowship in Chemistry and went to Harvard University in 1923 for his M.S. Worried that white students would resent being taught by an African American, Harvard withdrew Julian's teaching assistantship and he was unable to complete his Ph.D. at Harvard. In 1929 Julian received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to continue his graduate work at the University of Vienna, and he received his Ph.D. in 1931. He studied under Ernst Späth and was considered an impressive student. In Europe, he found freedom from the racial prejudices that nearly stifled him in the States. He freely participated in intellectual social gatherings, went to the opera and found greater acceptance among his peers. Julian was the third African American to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry after St. Elmo Brady and Edward M. A. Chandler.

"Reclaiming a Black Research Scientist's Forgotten Legacy"


Felicia R. Lee

February 6th, 2007

The New York Times

On the day that Percy L. Julian graduated at the top of his class at DePauw University, his great-grandmother bared her shoulders and, for the first time, showed him the deep scars that remained from a beating she had received as a slave during the last days of the Civil War. She then clutched his Phi Beta Kappa key in her hand and said, "This is worth all the scars."

Every February, when the curtain lifts on Black History Month, the cast of highlighted lives is often familiar: a Martin Luther King Jr., a Katherine Dunham. But the documentary Forgotten Genius, to be broadcast tonight as part of the Nova science series on PBS, dramatizes the story of Mr. Julian, a largely neglected black chemist who was nonetheless one of the most important scientists of the 20th century. He is played by the Tony Award-winning actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and the moment with his great-grandmother is but one in a film full of the echoes of the country’s painful racial history.

The Nova filmmakers’ effort to revive Mr. Julian’s legacy is not only riveting, but also one of the most ambitious projects in the 34-year history of Nova. His work included discoveries in the synthesis of cortisone, an anti-inflammatory used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and many other conditions. In 1999 the American Chemical Society recognized his synthesis of physostigmine, a glaucoma drug, as one of the top 25 achievements in the history of American chemistry. He was the first black chemist ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

"It’s been just wonderful," Paula S. Apsell, the senior executive producer for Nova, said of making the two-hour film. "It’s that delicious feeling you get when you know you’re on to something away from the crowd."

Because there was no full biography of Mr. Julian, Ms. Apsell said, about four years went into original research on his story: finding his unpublished autobiography, gathering speeches in which he talked about his life and work, conducting oral histories around the country with those who knew him. The project director was Stephen Lyons, an independent producer who was a co-writer and co-producer of the film with Llewellyn M. Smith (an associate producer for Eyes on the Prize). Mr. Smith is the director of Forgotten Genius.

Narrated by the actor Courtney B. Vance (Ron Carver on Law & Order: Criminal Intent), Forgotten Genius relies on a combination of interviews and dramatic re-enactments. Early on, viewers see the sheer odds against Mr. Julian, who was born in Montgomery, Ala., in 1899 and died in 1975.

In one scene he is 12, walking in the Alabama woods, when he discovers a young lynching victim hanging from a tree. He reaches out and touches the body. The adult Julian comments, "He didn’t look like a criminal; he just looked like a scared boy."

Mr. Smith said, "I think in the film there’s a view of him as a whole human being, and that’s unusual for scientists."

Mr. Julian’s name came up around 1998, Ms. Apsell recalled, when Nova sought to inject some diversity into a series about the lives of scientists, profiles that had included Albert Einstein, Galileo and Isaac Newton.

The dramatic spine of Forgotten Genius has Mr. Julian telling his story in flashback before an audience, documenting a life in which accomplishment and oppression took turns.

Harvard awarded him a master's degree but would not support him in getting his doctorate (he earned it at the University of Vienna); potential employers snubbed him. ("We didn’t know you were a Negro," the DuPont Company told him after inviting him for an interview.)

After doors slammed and opportunities vanished, Mr. Julian landed a job at Howard University, only to become enmeshed in a sex scandal that ended his employment there: He and his future wife were accused of having an affair while she was still married to one of his colleagues.

He spent years teaching at DePauw, in Greencastle, Ind., where a building is now named in his honor, but was denied a faculty position. After almost two decades at the Glidden company, where his research made possible a fire-retardant foam widely used in World War II and the mass production of synthetic progesterone, the company told him to concentrate on things like nonsplattering shortening.

By the time he became successful enough to move with his wife and two children into Oak Park, Ill., a mostly white Chicago suburb, their home was the target of a bomb and a fire.

"The good side was, as a kid I got to spend more time with my dad and stay up late, because we’d sit in the tree outside,"
recalls Percy Julian Jr., now a civil rights lawyer in Madison, Wis. "He’d sit there with a shotgun. And we’d talk about why someone would want to do this, and how wrong it was and how stupid it was."

Mr. Santiago-Hudson, who is also a playwright, said the project resonated with his desire to mirror the black American journey. He recalled eagerly reading boxes of material as the filmmakers did their research.

"I became Percy Julian,"
he said. "These are the stories I want to tell. They straighten us out in a society where the people who write the history books want the heroes to look like them."

Mr. Julian is certainly a hero by the end of the film, though he laments, "I feel that my own country robbed me of the chance for some of the great experiences that I would have liked to live through." By 1953 he had established Julian Laboratories (which he sold for more than $2 million in 1961), and he later formed Julian Research Institute, a nonprofit organization. He won accolades for his support of the civil rights struggle and was able to hire many black scientists and inspire many more.

One was James Shoffner, an organic chemistry researcher, who in Forgotten Genius compares Mr. Julian to Jackie Robinson as a barrier-breaker. Mr. Shoffner, 79, said he grew up reading about Mr. Julian in the so-called Negro press and met him in the late 1950s at a meeting of the American Chemical Society. He helped the society organize a symposium on Mr. Julian in 1999 and aided the Nova effort.

"Why he was not well known has to do with a series of factors, the first being the color of his skin," Mr. Shoffner said in a telephone interview. "Also, he did his science in a small liberal arts college in the middle of the country, and he did his science in industry. Those are two places not thought of as producing world-class science."

Already, because of the interest generated by the making of the film, Gerry Walanka, a Chicago lawyer and businessman, has begun a fund called In Search of Genius Foundation to help minority students interested in science. "We want to build on his story in a way that motivates young people," Mr. Walanka said. Nova is turning over more than 2,000 pages of transcripts from the film to an archive of the Julian family’s choice so that there can finally be a chance for a scholarly look at Mr. Julian.

"It certainly gives hope to young people about what you can be if you never, ever, ever give up,"
Mr. Julian’s son said. "That was the message our father gave us."

And from
Depauw University e-history:

Percy Lavon Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1899. He was the grandson of a slave and the oldest child of James Sumner Julian, a railway mail clerk, and Elizabeth Adams Julian, a schoolteacher. After graduating from a small normal school in his home town, he entered DePauw University as a "subfreshman" in the fall of 1916. At first he lived in the attic of a fraternity house, where he worked as a janitor and waiter in return for room and board. Later his parents moved to Greencastle to establish a home for Percy and his two brothers and three sisters, all of whom eventually graduated from DePauw.

Percy quickly made up his academic deficiencies and majored in chemistry under the guidance of Professor William M. Blanchard. The southern-born Blanchard recognized his protégé's scientific potential but recommended that he find a teaching position in a black college after graduation rather than undertake advanced training, because his skin color would limit his chances for success as a chemist.

Graduating from DePauw in 1920 at the top of his class, Percy accepted an instructorship in chemistry at Fiske University. Two years later he received a fellowship to study at Harvard, where he earned an M.A. in 1923. After two more years spent at Harvard on various research grants, he went to West Virginia State College for Negroes and later to Howard University to teach chemistry. Taking leave to study at the University of Vienna, where he received a Ph.D. in 1931, Julian found his career momentarily blocked at Howard and had to look elsewhere for a suitable position.

In 1932 his old mentor Professor Blanchard, now academic dean of DePauw University, invited Julian to return to his alma mater as a research associate in organic chemistry. For four years Julian carried on research in Minshall Laboratory that led to the successful synthesis of physostigmine, a drug used in the treatment of glaucoma. But DePauw lost the opportunity to retain the services of a brilliant scientist when the board of trustees proved unwilling to grant the black chemist a regular faculty position. Instead, in 1936 Julian became director of research for the Soya Products Division of the Glidden Company in Chicago. Percy L. Julian

During 17 years with that company he developed such products as fire-fighting foam and perfected methods for the mass production of hormones. In 1953 he formed his own company, Julian Laboratories, Inc. with headquarters in Franklin Park, Ill. and branches in Mexico and Guatemala. One of his major accomplishments was a process for the commercial production of the arthritis drug cortisone. Eventually selling the company to two large pharmaceutical firms, he organized Julian Associates and the Julian Research Institute in 1964, continuing his work as a research scientist and consultant until his death in 1975.

Throughout his life Julian maintained a deep interest in DePauw University, visiting the campus frequently as a guest lecturer, becoming a trustee in 1967, and even purchasing a farm near Greencastle as a country retreat. After his death his widow, Dr. Anna Johnson Julian, and their children, Faith and Percy Jr., established a trust fund to support research programs in the university's chemistry department and an annual Percy L. Julian Memorial Lecture. Also included was a scholarship fund to enable talented students to prepare themselves for careers in chemistry or related fields. Finally, in 1980 DePauw University rededicated the recently constructed building housing the mathematics and physical science departments as the Percy L. Julian Science and Mathematics Center.

And NOVA offered a fine production... Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Percy Julian in NOVA's Percy Julian: Forgotten Genius



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