The Rise…and Rise…and RISE of Dr. Percy Julian, one of the Greatest Scientists in the World

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How many geniuses are truly out there in the world?  Whose brain has the most elegant solution to climate change?  Whose brain holds the secret to ending aging entirely?  Where in the world is the person who has the formula for interstellar travel? And of all of these geniuses, how many of them are lucky enough to be born into a life with few obstacles to education, in circumstances that allow them to reach their fullest potential? 

The story of Dr. Percy Julian, one of the greatest scientists of all time, illustrates this issue.  Dr. Julian was a Black American, born in Alabama as the grandson of formerly enslaved people.   All of humanity today is lucky that Dr. Julian was able to overcome the roadblocks he faced to reach his true potential.   Born in 1899, Dr. Julian came into a world where Black people like himself were usually only expected to go to school until 8th grade.  A Black person going to college or even high school was almost unheard of in the United States at that time, much less a Black person getting a PhD or working in a lab as a career scientist. 

Children study corn and cotton at the Annie Davis school near Tuskegee, Alabama, 1902.

Dr. Julian loved plants from a young age, and recounted that one of his earliest memories was walking in the woods at home, savoring the beautiful plants around him – when suddenly he came upon the body of a Black man that had been lynched.  This horrifying occurrence was a feature of life for non-white people in Alabama at the time, but fortunately, Dr. Julian was also blessed to have great influences in his life that guided him and counteracted the constant weight of poverty and racial terrorism.  His parents were both teachers and deeply invested in education.  They spent their small salaries to buy him a wonderful collection of books that allowed him to escape Alabama and find freedom in the world of ideas.  Without this guidance and encouragement at a young age, Dr. Julian may never have been able to rise from his circumstances and become one of the world’s greatest scientists.

Dr. Julian was a man of great talent, and people in his community recognized it. He was at last able to find acceptance to one of the only universities that allowed  people of color at the time, DePauw University.  Arriving at school, he found he was not able to stay on campus and the lodgings he could secure would not serve him food.  His first days at college were spent walking around a hostile town, trying to find a place that would serve him something to eat.  This was just the beginning of the cruel series injustices that Dr. Julian had to fight at every turn during his academic career.  Eventually he found work as a kind of butler at a campus fraternity house.  As he worked for the fraternity, he took the remedial high school classes he missed in Alabama AND took university classes.  Again in difficult circumstances, Dr. Julian received guidance and encouragement from his mentor, Dr. William Blanchard.  Dr. Blanchard took young Dr. Julian under his wing, and nurtured his growing love for chemistry.  This encouragement and support from one concerned mentor made all the difference in the world.  Dr. Julian went on to graduate as Valedictorian of his class.

However, after graduating in 1920 as Valedictorian, Dr. Julian’s road was not easy by any means.  He eventually went on to obtain a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Vienna, because no American schools would allow him to complete his Ph.D.  PhD in hand, many American schools were still reluctant to hire a person of color.  But Dr. Julian was determined to stand out, and took on huge challenges that eventually made him very successful and famous.  He became an expert in the field of “natural source chemistry,” which concentrated on unlocking the potent chemicals within plants.  Over his long career he discovered how to synthesize and produce steroid drugs on a mass scale.

His talent for elegant chemical solutions was unparalleled, and in his lifetime he synthesized medicines for glaucoma, several classes of steroids including cortisone, a miracle anti-inflammatory, and hormones like progesterone, used in treatment of miscarriage and also as a key ingredient of the birth control pill.  His scientific achievements are literally too many to contain in a single article, please see the links below for more about his incredible discoveries.  At the end of his life he was a millionaire who ran his own business synthesizing key compounds used in medicine for the masses, and yet hateful villains STILL tried to firebomb his stately mansion home.  At that time, the entire community in which he lived turned out in protest, surrounding his house with a human wall and insisting that he be able to stay in the Chicago suburb where he lived.  He stayed.

Dr. Percy Julian’s story is one of towering scientific achievement against all odds.  As anyone who has taken a steroidal medicine and felt it ease their pain knows, great scientists such as Dr. Julian are priceless gifts to society.  All though his life, however, Dr. Julian wondered what more he could have done if he hadn’t had to spend so much of his energy just trying to survive in a world so clearly bent on blocking him at every turn.  Dr. Julian was able to make it into the closed-off world of research science, and thrive there, in part because of the support he received from mentors, family, and his community.  In 2021, our world faces unprecedented challenges, and we need great scientists more than ever.  High Touch High Tech and our partner, Color of Science, believe that there is scientific genius all around us.  Together we share the goals of encouraging life-long scientific curiosity, encouraging the diversification of STEM, and providing equal opportunities for all students access to hands-on scientific experiences.  Here in 2021, we celebrate Dr. Julian’s legacy by working to assist the geniuses of the future to overcome systemic obstacles and unlock their true potential for the good of all the world. 

Sources and Further Reading:

Visit our Partners, Color of Science:

An excellent documentary on Dr. Julian, highly recommended:

In-depth exploration of Dr. Julian’s work in Chemistry:

An overall biography:

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