Percy Lavon Julian was born on April 11, 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama, the oldest of six children of a railway clerk and a school teacher. Learning was emphasized by his parents and his two brothers went on to become physicians and his three sisters received masters degrees. After elementary school he attended the State Normal School for Negros. Upon graduation he moved to Greencastle, Indiana, where he attended DePauw University. Because of his inadequate preparation he was admitted as a "sub-freshman" and in addition to his college classes he had to take classes at a nearby high school. He supported his education by working as a waiter and digging ditches.
Julian graduated from DePauw in 1920 as valedictorian of his class and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After graduation, following the advice of his teachers, he took a position as a chemistry teacher at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He taught at Fisk for two years and in 1922 he won an Austin Fellowship that allowed him to go to Harvard University where in 1823 he received a M.A. Unable to continue at Harvard due to the color of his skin, joined the faculty at West Virginia State College. In 1928 he became the head of the chemistry department at Howard University in Washington D. C.
In 1929 Julian received a Rockefeller foundation grant that allowed him to travel to Vienna where he worked in the laboratory of Ernst Spath at the University of Vienna. In Vienna, Julian was able to finish his Ph.D. in 1931, working on natural products chemistry and completing a thesis on the alkaloids of the Corydalis cava. After finishing his Ph.D. Julian returned to Howard University, where he taught for two more years. In 1933 he returned to DePauw University as a research fellow. At DePauw, working with Joseph Pikl, a colleague of his from Vienna, Julian completed the total synthesis of physostigmine, a reversible inhibitor of cholinesterase. It is used to treat myasthenia gravis, glaucoma and Alzheimer's disease.
Frustrated because he was unable to obtain a faculty position at DePauw, Julian went into industry, where in 1936 he got a job as the director of research for soya products at Glidden in Chicago, Illinois. He worked at Glidden for 18 years developing products from soya beans which resulted in numerous patents including a paper coating and a fire retardant foam widely used during World War II. His research made possible the production of large quantities of steroid hormones such as progesterone and hydrocortisone at low cost. Around 1950 the Julian family moved from Chicago to Oak Park, Illinois. The first African-American family in the white neighborhood, their house was twice bombed. These attacks galvanized the community and a community group was formed to support the Julians
In 1953 he left Glidden and established Julian Laboratories, which specialized in producing synthetic cortisone. Using wild yams from Mexico, which he found were a better source of steroids than soya, Julian established Labratorios Julian de Mexico in Mexico city which cultivated the yams and shipped them to Oak Park, Illinois for refinement. In 1961 he sold the Oak Park plant to Smith, Kline and French for 2.3 million dollars.
Among the honors that Julian received was the Springham Medal from the NAACP and election to the National Academy of Science in 1973, as the second African-American to receive that honor.
Julian died on April 19, 1975.
Witkop, Bernhard, "Percy Lavon Julian" in Biographical Memoirs, Vol. 52, National Academy Press, 1980
"Percy Julian" at blackinventor.com
Percy Lavon Julian, Wikipedia entry