Skip to Content

Born Chemist

In synthesizing drugs for glaucoma and arthritis, chemist Percy Lavon Julian found inspiration amidst adversity.
April 1, 2004

In 1916, 17-year-old Percy Lavon Julian, the grandson of a former slave, journeyed from Montgomery, AL, to Greencastle, IN, to begin his college education at DePauw University. In spite of his scant preparation-insufficient public education available to African Americans in Alabama made it necessary for him to take remedial high-school classes while at DePauw-the chemist graduated as class valedictorian. He went on to synthesize both a drug for the treatment of glaucoma and cortisone for rheumatoid arthritis.

Despite Julian’s academic success, his professors informed him that they couldn’t secure him a position at a graduate school or an industrial lab because of his race. Instead, Julian became a chemistry instructor at Fisk University in Nashville, TN; two years later, he went to Harvard University to study biophysics and organic chemistry. He received his master’s degree in 1923 but again was denied a faculty position. After teaching at West Virginia State College and Howard University, he received a grant in 1929 from the Rockefeller Foundation to get his PhD. He chose to attend the University of Vienna in Austria, where he developed a passion for the chemistry of natural products.

Julian returned to DePauw in 1932 with a colleague from Vienna to head a new research program for undergraduate organic-chemistry students. One problem the group worked on was the synthesis of physostigmine, a drug used to treat glaucoma that at the time could only be obtained from the Calabar bean. Anxious to hold onto funding during the Depression years, Julian and his team raced against a University of Oxford group to synthesize the rare drug. Julian succeeded in 1935 and became internationally famous-yet DePauw’s board of trustees still refused to grant him a professorship.

Frustrated, Julian left academia the next year to become research director for soya products at Chicago-based Glidden. There, he made perhaps his most important discovery. In 1948, Julian heard that scientists at the Mayo Clinic had discovered a substance that successfully treated rheumatoid arthritis. Since it was a steroid, the class of chemicals that Julian specialized in, he hurried to create it synthetically. Within a year, he had succeeded; his work was largely responsible for making hydrocortisone widely available and affordable. Over the next 25 years, Julian founded two research organizations and received many patents. He kept ties with DePauw, the school that originally couldn’t find him work; in the years before his death in 1975, he served on the board of trustees.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Here’s how a Twitter engineer says it will break in the coming weeks

One insider says the company’s current staffing isn’t able to sustain the platform.

Technology that lets us “speak” to our dead relatives has arrived. Are we ready?

Digital clones of the people we love could forever change how we grieve.

How to befriend a crow

I watched a bunch of crows on TikTok and now I'm trying to connect with some local birds.

Starlink signals can be reverse-engineered to work like GPS—whether SpaceX likes it or not

Elon said no thanks to using his mega-constellation for navigation. Researchers went ahead anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.