Percy Lavon Julian: The chemist and entrepreneur

March 2, 2022


Jane Shiff

Percy Lavon Julian was an American research chemist for medical drugs and plants trailblazing the way for Black scientists everywhere.

Another person who required a copious amount of education was Percy Lavon Julian. He was a chemist and entrepreneur. Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama. he was the son of a railway mail clerk and the grandson of enslaved African Americans. Julian studied at DePauw University Greencastle, Indiana, and majored in chemistry and graduated as valedictorian of his class. Julian then taught at Fisk University for two years before transferring to Harvard University. 

He later began studies on the chemistry of medical plants, and with the help of his Viennese colleague, Josef Pikl, he created the first total synthesis of physostigmine. Physostigmine was a part of the Calabar bean, used to treat glaucoma in the late 19th century. Julian also found medical uses for steroid stigmasterol from his earlier experiments of synthesizing physostigmine. With this Julian discovered that this by-product synthesizes sex hormones, such as progesterone which helps pregnant women avoid miscarriage. 

Julian was a notable figure in synthesizing cortisone, which helped with rheumatoid arthritis. He could make hydrocortisone products, which later became more commonly prescribed by doctors than cortisone products. In 1954, Julian founded Julian Laboratories in Franklin Park, Illinois, and Mexico City. He was very active in improving conditions for African Americans and helped create the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of Chicago.

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