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Reply #72: Percy Julian, chemist (1899-1975) [View All]

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Brewman_Jax Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Feb-17-07 05:59 PM
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72. Percy Julian, chemist (1899-1975)
The grandson of Alabama slaves, Julian met with every possible barrier in a deeply segregated America. He was a man of genius, devotion and determination. As a black man, he was also an outsider, fighting to make a place for himself in a profession and country divided by bigotry - a man who would eventually find freedom in the laboratory. By the time of his death, Julian had risen to the highest levels of scientific and personal achievement, overcoming countless obstacles to become a world-class scientist, a self-made millionaire and a civil-rights pioneer.

His professional and personal journey was a tumultuous ride of highs and lows. Julian was born into a world ruled by Jim Crow segregation. His parents, both trained as teachers, believed education offered the path to a better life. But academia did not welcome Julian with open arms. As a sophomore at DePauw University, he already dreamed of a graduate education, though only one African American at the time had ever earned a doctorate in chemistry. He went on to earn his Masters at Harvard, even while black students were banned from the dorms in Harvard Yard and white researchers argued that blacks did not have the intellectual capacity to master the sciences. Julian received his PhD from the University of Vienna, where he studied under one of Vienna's leading chemists, Ernst Spth.

As a scholar, Julian taught at Howard University, Fisk University and back at DePauw. Early in his career he put himself on the map with a high-stakes research project that pitted him against the premier organic chemist of the time. It was one of many races he would win on his way to publishing scores of papers and pursuing groundbreaking science. But even national acclaim in his field could not sweep aside prejudice.

Finding too many doors closed to black men in academe, Julian leapt into the private sector as director of research, Soya Products Division, for Glidden Paints. In 1936 it was a rare opportunity for a black man in America, and one that Julian made the most of, filing more than 100 patents during his tenure. Julian and his team of chemists turned the soybean inside out, isolating parts of the bean that would serve as key ingredients in a vast and varied range of new household and industrial products, including food oils, latex paint, plastics, linoleum, plywood glue, high-protein livestock feed and fire-fighting foam. This was chemistry that changed the way we live.

It was also chemistry that healed. Just a few years before Julian arrived at Glidden, scientists in Europe and America had discovered that chemicals called steroids played a number of roles in the human body. But steroids drawn from animal sources were scarce and expensive; if these compounds were ever to have a significant role in the treatment of human disease, someone would have to find a way to make them from plants. Julian realized that in the soybean he had a perfect starting material for making steroids on a commercial scale. He seized that opportunity, making Glidden the first American company to make progesterone, a female sex hormone, available in large quantities at reasonable prices.

Julian's crowning honor came when he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. The year was 1973, and Julian was only the second African American member. Even in the shadow of society's prejudice, his drive, intelligence and mastery of chemistry often prevailed. In a more enlightened era, his colleagues argue, he could have been a Nobel laureate.



http://www.pbs.org/previews/nova_forgottengenius /

Writer's Note: Dr. Julian made incredible discoveries in spite of having to deal the crippling effects of the racist caste society. To add insult to injury, his achievements meant nothing to an ungrateful country and neighbors--only the fact that he was black mattered. And they wonder why black people get so angry. :grr:
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