Percy Lavon Julian
Organic Chemist; Developer of Treatment for Glaucoma
Julian was born on April 11, 1899, in Montgomery, Alabama, to an African American family. He was interested in science as a boy, but had few chances to study it. He could not even attend the local high school, because virtually all high schools in Alabama were for whites only. He left home to attend the one public high school for blacks (in Birmingham) and did so well that he won a scholarship to De Pauw University in Indiana. He majored in chemistry at De Pauw, graduating at the top of his class in 1920. As his father had warned him, he had limited job prospects in chemical industries because of widespread discrimination. After teaching for two years at Fisk University, he received a fellowship to Harvard University; where he earned his master’s degree in one year.
In 1928 Julian became head of the chemistry department at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He traveled to Austria in 1929 to investigate the chemical properties of soybean extracts. The University of Vienna awarded him a Ph.D. in 1931. He then returned to Howard to study the structure of the chemical physostigmine, which was used to treat glaucoma, an eye disease leading to blindness.
Julian transferred to a post at De Pauw in 1932. Three years later, having identified the chemical steps in the formation of physostigmine, he performed the first synthesis of the drug. Despite this accomplishment, he was denied two academic positions because of his race, but he secured the post of chief chemist at the Glidden Company; a Chicago industrial laboratory. Within a few years, he had found a way to use the soybean protein in the manufacture of textiles, prints, paper coatings, and Aero Foam fire extinguishers.
Using soy extracts, Julian achieved the synthesis of the sex hormones progesterone and testosterone and subsequently synthesized, also from soy extracts, the chemical cortisone, recently found to be an effective treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.
In 1954 Julian established Julian Laboratories, Inc., in Chicago, and a sister plant in Mexico City; where he used extracts from wild yams to synthesize cortisone. He sold the business when he retired in 1964.
He received the 1947 Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He continued to experiment with synthetic chemicals until his death in 1975.
Percy Lavon Julian’s Legacy
Julian’s pharmaceutical successes reduced the cost and increased the availability of several drugs, leading to treatment for many people suffering from debilitating diseases.
Julian’s synthetic production of physostigmine, which was cheaper than extracting it from beans, proved invaluable to people with glaucoma. The disease slowly damages the retina, eventually blinding its victim. As a treatment for glaucoma, physostigmine was eventually replaced by other drugs and surgical interventions, but it remains a valuable pharmaceutical. In 1998 preliminary findings of a clinical experiment showed that physostigmine increases short term memory in humans.
The soybased drug syntheses that Julian perfected reduced the cost of manufacturing sex hormones and cortisone, making their production more viable. Progesterone and testosterone had previously been made using chemicals taken from cows’ spinal cords and brains, an expensive and restrictive procedure. These hormones have numerous uses in modern medicine, but in the early twentieth century, progesterone was used primarily to prevent miscarriages, and testosterone was used to treat diminishing sex drive in older men.
The traditional method of producing cortisone utilized cholesterol from the bile of oxen. This slow and costly process required the bile of more than 14,000 animals to produce cortisone for one arthritis patient for one year. Successful synthesis of cortisone reduced its cost from hundreds of dollars to pennies per dose.
Julian’s accomplishments in organic chemistry and drug synthesis resulted in more than 100 patents and paved the way for future progress in those areas.
Percy Lavon Julian – 1899-1975