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Rewriting Life

Born Chemist

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

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.

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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.

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