Percy Lavon Julian

Infobox Person
name = Percy Lavon Julian

image_size = 250px
caption = Julian circa 1940–1950
birth_date = birth date|1899|4|11|mf=y
birth_place = Montgomery, Alabama
death_date = death date and age|1975|4|19|1899|4|11|mf=y
death_place = Waukegan, Illinois
occupation = Chemist
spouse = Anna Roselle Johnson
parents = Elizabeth Lena Adams (1878–?) and James Sumner Julian I (1871–1951)
children = Percy Lavon Julian, Jr. (1940-2008) and Faith Julian (1944- )

Percy Lavon Julian (April 11, 1899 – April 19, 1975) was an American research chemist and a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants. He was the first to synthesize the natural product physostigmine; and was an American pioneer in the industrial large-scale chemical synthesis of the human hormones, steroids, progesterone, and testosterone, from plant sterols such as stigmasterol and sitosterol. His work would lay the foundation for the steroid drug industry's production of cortisone, other corticosteroids, and birth control pills. He later started his own company to synthesize steroid intermediates from the Mexican wild yam. His work helped reduce the cost of steroid intermediates to large multinational pharmaceutical companies.cite web |url= |title= NOVA: Forgotten Genius |accessdate=2007-02-13 |publisher=NOVA (TV series)]

During his lifetime he received more than 130 chemical patents. Julian was the one of the first African Americans to receive a doctorate in chemistry. He was the first African-American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, and the second African-American scientist inducted from any field.

Early life and education

Percy Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama to Elizabeth Lena Adams(1878-?) and James Sumner Julian I (1871–?). James was a railway mail carrier for the United States Post Office, and his father was a slave. [. Among his childhood memories was finding a lynched man hung from a tree while walking in the woods near his home. While it was generally unheard of for African Americans at the time to pursue an education beyond the 8th grade, Julian's parents steered all of their children toward higher education.

Julian attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. The college accepted few African-American students. The segregated nature of the town forced social humiliations. Julian was not allowed to live in the college dormitories and first stayed in an off-campus boarding home, which refused to serve him meals. It took him days before Julian found an establishment where he could eat. He worked firing the furnace and doing other odd jobs in a fraternity house. In return, he was allowed to sleep in the basement and eat at the house. Julian graduated from DePauw in 1920 Phi Beta Kappa and valedictorian. By 1930 Julian's father had moved the entire family to Greencastle, Indiana so that all his children could attend college at DePauw. The father was still working as a railroad postal clerk.1930 US Census; Greencastle, Indiana with ; James owned his own home valued at $3,000. Percy Julian's siblings were James Sumner Julian II (1903-?) (Honorary Depauw 1970); Mattie Julian Brown (c1905-1992) (Depauw 1926); Elizabeth Julian White (c1907-2007) (Depauw 1928); Irma D. Julian Raybon (1912-1990) (Depauw 1933); and Emerson R. Julian (1917-1978) (Depauw 1938).]

Julian wanted to obtain his doctorate in chemistry, but learned it would be difficult for an African American. After graduating from DePauw, Julian became a chemistry instructor at Fisk University. He then received an Austin Fellowship in Chemistry and went to Harvard University in 1923 for his M.S. Worried that white students would resent being taught by an African American, Harvard withdrew Julian's teaching assistantship. He was unable to complete his Ph.D. at Harvard.

In 1929, while an instructor at Howard University, Julian received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to continue his graduate work at the University of Vienna, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1931. He studied under Ernst Späth and was considered an impressive student. In Europe, he found freedom from the racial prejudices that had nearly stifled him in the States. He freely participated in intellectual social gatherings, went to the opera and found greater acceptance among his peers. [cite news |first= |last= |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Percy L. Julian Is Awarded Doctorate in Chemistry. |url= |quote=Percy L. Julian, associate professor and acting head of the department of chemistry of Howard University, has been awarded his doctorate in chemistry at the University of Vienna, his achievement being a combination of two years' residence abroad and the transfer of graduate credit from Harvard University. |publisher=Washington Post |date=August 2, 1931 |accessdate=2007-02-14 ] [cite news |first= |last= |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Julian Will Do Research in Chemistry in Austrian Universities. |quote=Nine members of the faculty of the college of liberal arts of Howard University have been granted leaves of absence for graduate study during 1929-1930, and one for two years beginning with the fall of 1929. Percy L. Julian will study organic chemistry and microanalysis at the University of Vienna and at Graz University. |work= |publisher=Washington Post |date=June 9, 1929 |accessdate=2007-02-14 ] Julian was one of the first African Americans to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry, after St. Elmo Brady and Edward M. A. Chandler. [cite web |url= |title=St. Elmo Brady | publisher=University of Illinois|accessdate=2007-02-14] During Julian's lifetime he earned more than 130 chemical patents for his work. Percy Julian was the second African American to get a masters degree in chemistry.Fact|date=March 2008 He was the first African-American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, and the second African-American scientist inducted from any field.

After returning from Vienna, Julian taught at Howard University for one year, where he met his future wife, Anna Roselle Johnson (Ph.D. in Sociology, 1937, University of Pennsylvania). They married on December 24, 1935 and had two children: Percy Lavon Julian, Jr. (1940-February 24, 2008), who became a prestigious civil rights lawyer in Madison, Wisconsin; and Faith Roselle Julian (1944- ), who still resides in their Oak Park home and often makes moving speeches about her father and his contributions to science.cite web |url= |title=Life Chronology |accessdate=2007-02-14 |publisher=DePauw University |work= ]

At Howard, Julian got involved in university politics and set off an embarrassing chain of events. After he goaded a white chemist named Jacob Shohan into resigning, Shohan retaliated by releasing to the local African-American newspaper the letters Julian had written to him from Vienna. The letters contained accounts of Julian's sex life, and criticism of individual Howard faculty members. Julian's laboratory assistant, Robert Thompson, also charged he had found his wife and Julian together in a sexual tryst. When Thompson was fired for filing a lawsuit against the University, he also gave the paper racy letters which Julian had written to him from Vienna. Through the summer of 1932, the "Baltimore Afro-American" published all of Julian's letters.

William Blanchard then offered Julian a position to teach organic chemistry at DePauw University in 1932. Julian helped Josef Pikl, a fellow student at the University of Vienna, to come to the United States to work with him at Depauw. In 1935 Julian and Pikl completed the total synthesis of physostigmine, and confirmed the structural formula assigned to it. Robert Robinson of Oxford University was the first to publish a synthesis of physostigmine, but Julian noticed that the melting point was wrong for Robinson's end product. When Julian completed his synthesis, the melting point matched the correct one for natural physostigmine from the calabar bean.

Julian also extracted stigmasterol, which took its name from "Physostigma venenosum", the west African calabar bean that he hoped could serve as raw material for synthesis of human steroidal hormones. At about this time, 1934, Butenandt , [ A. Butenandt,U. Westphal and H.Cobler, Berichte Deutsche chemische Gesellschaft,,67, 1611-1616, 2085-2087(1934)] and Fernholz [ E. Fernholz, Berichte Deutsche chemische Gesellschaft, 67 ,2027-2031 (1934)] ,in Germany, had shown that stigmasterol, isolated from soybean oil, could be converted to progesterone by synthetic organic chemistry.


Julian's research at Glidden changed in 1940 when he began work on synthesizing progesterone, estrogen and testosterone from the plant sterol stigmasterol. Further, Julian isolated sitosterol from soybean oil by a foam technique he invented. At that time clinicians were discovering many uses for the newly discovered sex hormones. However, only minute quantities could be produced from the extraction of hundreds of pounds of spinal cords, testicles or ovaries.

In 1940 Julian was able to produce 100 lb of mixed soy sterols daily, which had a value of $10,000, in sex hormones. Julian was soon ozonizing 100 pounds daily of mixed sterol dibromides. The result was the female hormone progesterone which was put on the American market in bulk for the first time. Production of other sex hormones soon followed. [Bernhard Witkop. "Percy Lavon Julian. 1899-1975." in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 52(1980).223-266.]

His work made possible the production of these hormones on a larger (kilogram) industrial scale, with the potential of reducing the cost of treating hormonal deficiencies. Julian and his co-workers obtained patents for Glidden on key processes for the preparation of progesterone and testosterone from soybean plant sterols. Product patents held by a former cartel of European pharmaceutical companies prevented a significant reduction in wholesale and retail prices for clinical use of these hormones in the 1940s. [cite journal |author= |month=December 22, |year=1945 |title=Sex hormones in legal battle |journal=Bus Week |pages=pp. 46–50] [cite journal |author= |month=May |year=1951 |title=Mexican hormones |journal=Fortune |volume=43 |number=5 |pages=86–90, 161–2, 166, 168] cite book |author=Gereffi, Gary |year=1983 |title=The pharmaceutical industry and dependency in the Third World |location=Princeton |publisher=Princeton University Press |isbn=0691094012 |pages=pp. 53-163]

On April 13, 1949, rheumatologist Philip Hench at the Mayo Clinic announced the dramatic effectiveness of cortisone in treating rheumatoid arthritis. The cortisone was produced by Merck at great expense using a complex 36-step synthesis developed by chemist Lewis Sarett. It started with deoxycholic acid from cattle bile acids. On September 30, 1949, Julian announced an improvement in the process of producing cortisone from bile acids. This eliminated the need to use osmium tetroxide (a rare and expensive chemical). By 1950, Glidden could begin producing closely related compounds which may have partial cortisone activity. Julian also announced the synthesis, starting with pregnenolone from soybean oil sterols of the steroid cortexolone and possibly 17α-hydroxyprogesterone and pregnenetriolone, which he hoped might also be effective in treating rheumatoid arthritis [unfortunately they were not] . [cite journal |author=Gibbons, Roy |month=September 30, |year=1949 |title=Science gets synthetic key to rare drug; discovery is made in Chicago |journal=Chicago Tribune |pages=p. 1 |url=]

On April 5, 1952, biochemist Durey Peterson and microbiologist Herbert Murray at Upjohn published the first report of a fermentation process for the microbial 11α-oxygenation of steroids in a single step (by common molds of the order Mucorales). Their fermentation process could produce 11α-hydroxyprogesterone or 11α-hydroxycortisone from progesterone or Compound S, respectively, which could then by further chemical steps be converted to cortisone or 11β-hydroxycortisone (cortisol). [cite journal |author=Peterson DH, Murray, HC |year=1952 |title=Microbiological oxygenation of steroids at carbon 11 |journal=J Am Chem Soc |volume=74 |issue=7 |pages=1871–2 |url= |doi=10.1021/ja01127a531] After two years, Glidden abandoned production of cortisone from bile acids to concentrate on Compound S. Julian developed an excellent multistep process for conversion of pregnenolone , available in abundance from soybean oil sterols to cortexolone. In 1952, Glidden, which had been producing progesterone and other steroids from soybean oil, shut down its own production and began importing them from Mexico through an arrangement with Diosynth (a small Mexican company founded in 1947 by Russell Marker after leaving Syntex). Glidden's cost of production of cortexolone was relatively high, so Upjohn decided to use progesterone, available in large quantity at low cost from Syntex, to produce cortisone and hydrocortisone.cite book |author=Applezweig, Norman |year=1962 |title=Steroid drugs |location=New York |publisher=Blakiston Division, McGraw-Hill |pages=pp.vii-xi, 9-83]

In 1953, Glidden decided to leave the steroid business which had been relatively unprofitable over the years despite Julian's innovative work. [cite web |author=Shurtleff, William; Aoyagi, Akiko |year=2004 |title=History of the Glidden Company's Soya Products / Chemurgy Division |publisher=The Soy Daily |url= |accessdate=2007-02-24] On December 1, 1953, Julian left Glidden after 18 years, giving up a salary of nearly $50,000 a year, to found his own company, Julian Laboratories, Inc., taking over the small, concrete-block building of Suburban Chemical Company in Franklin Park, Illinois. [cite news |author= |date=December 2, 1953 |title=Julian leaves Glidden. Will Head Own Firm. |publisher=Chicago Tribune |pages=p. C6 |url=] [cite news |author= |month= |date=January 6, 1963 |title=Julian aids mankind with his knowledge |publisher=Chicago Tribune |pages=p. 1 |url=]

On December 2, 1953, Pfizer and Syntex acquired exclusive licenses of Glidden patents for the synthesis of Compound S. Pfizer had developed a fermentation process for microbial 11β-oxygenation of steroids in a single step that could convert Compound S directly to 11β-hydrocortisone (cortisol), with Syntex undertaking large-scale production of cortexolone at very low cost.

Oak Park and Julian Laboratories

Around 1950 Julian moved his family from Chicago to the suburb of Oak Park, Illinois, where the Julians were the first African-American family. [cite web |url= |title= From Dreams to Determination: The Legacy of Doctors Percy and Anna Julian|accessdate=2007-02-13 |publisher= Dusable Museum] Although some residents welcomed them into the community, there was also opposition by some. Their home was fire-bombed on Thanksgiving Day, 1950, before they moved in. After the Julians had moved to Oak Park, the house was attacked with dynamite on June 12, 1951. The attacks galvanized the community and a community group was formed to support the Julians. [cite news |first= |last= |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Arson Fails at Home of Negro Scientist. |url= |quote=Chicago, November 22, 1950. An attempt was made tonight to burn down the expensive home that Dr. Percy Julian, 51 years old, internationally known Negro research chemist, recently purchased in one of the most exclusive sections in suburban Oak Park. |publisher=New York Times |date=November 23, 1950 |accessdate=2007-02-14 ] Julian's son later recounted that during these times, he and his father often kept watch over the family's property by sitting in a tree with a shotgun.

In 1953, Julian founded his own research firm, Julian Laboratories, Inc. He brought many of his best chemists, including African Americans and women, from Glidden to his own company. Julian won a contract to provide Upjohn with $2 million worth of progesterone. To compete against Syntex, he would have to use the same Mexican yam as his starting material. Julian borrowed and used his own money to build a processing plant in Mexico, but he could not get a permit from the government to harvest the yams. Abraham Zlotnik found a new source of the yam in Guatemala for the company.

In July 1956, Julian and executives of two other American companies trying to enter the Mexican steroid intermediates market appeared before a U.S. Senate subcommittee. They testified that Syntex was using undue influence to monopolize access to the Mexican yam. cite book |author=United States Senate |year=1957 |title=Wonder drugs : hearings before the Subcommittee on Patents, Trademarks, and Copyrights of the Committee on the Judiciary, US Senate, 84th Congress, 2nd session, pursuant to S. Res. 167, on licensing of United States Government owned patents; removal of obstacles to the production of essential materials from the cheapest source for the manufacture of cortisone and other hormones. July 5 and 6, 1956.
location=Washington | publisher=US Government Printing Office |pages=pp. 114-5
] The hearings resulted in Syntex signing a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department. While it did not admit to restraining trade, it promised not to do so in the future. Within five years, large American multinational pharmaceutical companies had acquired all six producers of steroid intermediates in Mexico. Four had been Mexican-owned. Syntex reduced the cost of bulk progesterone as an intermediate more than 250-fold over twelve years, from $80 per gram in 1943 to $0.31 per gram in 1955. Competition from Upjohn and General Mills, who had together made very substantial improvements in the production of progesterone from stigmasterol, forced the price of Mexican progesterone down to less than $0.15 per gram in 1957. The price continued to fall, bottoming out at $0.08 per gram in 1968. In 1958, Upjohn purchased 6,900 kg of progesterone from Syntex at $.135 per gram, 6,201 kg of progesterone from Searle (who had acquired Pesa) at $0.143 per gram, 5,150 kg of progesterone from Julian Laboratories at $0.14 per gram, and 1,925 kg of progesterone from General Mills (who had acquired Protex) at $0.142 per gram. cite book |author=United States Senate |year=1960 |title=Administered prices : hearings before the Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly of the Committee on the Judiciary, US Senate, 86th Congress, 1st session, pursuant to S. Res. 57; Part 14: Administered Prices in the Drug Industry (Corticosteroids). December 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12, 1959.
location=Washington | publisher=US Government Printing Office |pages=pp. 7884, 8296
] Despite continually falling bulk prices of steroid intermediates, an oligopoly of large American multinational pharmaceutical companies kept the wholesale prices of corticosteroid drugs fixed and unchanged into the 1960s. Cortisone was fixed at $5.48 per gram from 1954, hydrocortisone fixed at $7.99 per gram from 1954, and prednisone fixed at $35.80 per gram from 1956. Merck and Roussel Uclaf concentrated on improving the production of corticosteroids from cattle bile acids. In 1960 Roussel produced almost one-third of the world's corticosteroids from bile acids.

One year Julian Laboratories chemists found a way to quadruple the yield on a product on which they were barely breaking even. Julian reduced their price for the product from $4,000 per kg down to $400 per kg. He sold the company in 1961, for $2.3 million dollars. [cite web |url= |title=Inflation calculator |accessdate=2007-02-14 |quote=Worth $15.6 million in inflation adjusted 2007 dollars |work= ] The U.S. and Mexico facilities were purchased by Smith Kline and Julian's chemical plant in Guatemala was purchased by morgan michelle Upjohn.

In 1964, Julian founded Julian Associates and Julian Research Institute, which he managed for the rest of his life. [cite web |url=|title= DePauw Archives biography|accessdate=2007-02-13 |publisher= Depauw University]

National Academy of Sciences

He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1973 in recognition of his scientific achievements. He was the second African American to be inducted after David Blackwell.


Julian died of liver cancer on April 19, 1975 in St. Theresa's Hospital in Waukegan, Illinois and was buried in Elm Lawn Cemetery in Elmhurst, Illinois.cite news |first= |last= |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Dr. Percy Julian, Chemist, 76, Dies. |url= |quote=Leader in the Fight for Civil Rights Was Synthesizer of Cortisone Drugs. Dr. Percy L. Julian, an internationally known research chemist and a leader in the fight for civil rights, died Saturday in St. Theresa's Hospital, Waukegan, Illinois. He was 76 years old and lived in Oak Park, Illinois. |publisher=New York Times |date=April 21, 1975 |accessdate=2007-02-14 ] cite news |first= |last= |authorlink= |date=May 5, 1975 |title=Milestones |url=,9171,913041,00.html |work= |publisher=Time (magazine) |quote=Died. Percy L. Julian, 76, prolific black research chemist; of cancer; in Waukegan, Illinois. Grandson of a slave, Alabama-born Julian won honors at Harvard and the University of Vienna on his way to garnering over 130 chemical patents. |accessdate=2007-02-14 ] cite news |first= |last= |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Dr. Percy Julian, Chemist, Dies |url= |quote=Dr. Percy Lavon Julian, 76, an internationally known organic chemist and noted civil rights leader, died Saturday in St. Theresa's Hospital in Waukegan, Illinois. |publisher=Washington Post |date=April 22, 1975 |accessdate=2007-02-14 ]


*In 1950, the Chicago Sun-Times named Percy Julian the Chicagoan of the Year.
*In 1975, Percy L. Julian High School was opened on the south side of Chicago, Illinois as a Chicago Public High School.
* In 1983, Hawthorne School in Oak Park was renamed Percy Julian Middle School in his honor.
* In 1980, the science and mathematics building on the DePauw University campus was rededicated as the Percy L. Julian Mathematics and Science Center. In Greencastle, Indiana, where DePauw is located, a street was named after Julian.
* Illinois State University, where Julian served on the board of trustees, named a hall after him. [cite web |url=|title= Percy L. Julian High School|accessdate=2007-02-13]
*In 1993 Julian was honored on a stamp issued by the United States Postal Service.cite web | last = | first = | authorlink = | coauthors = | year = 2005 | url = | title = Black Heritage Stamps | format = | work = International Information Programs | publisher = U.S. Department of State | accessdate = 2007-02-18]
*In 1999, the American Chemical Society recognized Julian's synthesis of physostigmine as one of the top 25 achievements in the history of American chemistry. [cite web |url=|title= Synthesis of Physostigmine|accessdate=2007-02-13 |publisher= American Chemical Society]


The Percy Lavon Julian family papers are archived at DePauw University. cite web |url= |title=Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975) archive |accessdate=2007-02-14 |publisher=Depauw University |work= ]


*US patent|2373686; Jul 15, 1942; Phosphatide Product And Method Of Making
*US patent|3761469; September 25, 1973; Process For The Manufacture Of Steroid Chlorohydrins; with Arnold Lippert Hirsch


*US patent|2,218,971, 10/22/1940, Recovery of sterols
*US patent|2,752,339, 6/26/1956, Preparation of cortisone
*US patent|3,149,132, 9/15/1964, 16-Aminomenthyl-17-alkyltestosterone derivatives
*US patent|3,274,178, 9/20/1966, Method for preparing 16(alpha)-hydroxypregnenes and intermediates obtained therein


* [ Studies in the Indole Series. I. The Synthesis of Alpha-Benzylindoles] ; Percy L. Julian, Josef Pikl; J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1933, 55(5), pp 2105-2110.
* [ Studies in the Indole Series. V. The Complete Synthesis of Physostigmine (Eserine)] ; Percy L. Julian, Josef Pikl; J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1935, 57(4), pp 755-757.


Further reading

id = PMID:15792073
title=Cortisone and the burning cross. The story of Percy Julian
periodical=The Pharos of Alpha Omega Alpha-Honor Medical Society. Alpha Omega Alpha

id = PMID:8945489
first=R A
first2=M A
publication-date=1996 Dec
title=Stamp vignette on medical science. Percy Lavon Julian--industrial chemist
periodical=Mayo Clin. Proc.

id = PMID:4928023
first=W M
publication-date=1971 Mar
title=Percy Lavon Julian, Ph.D., Sc.D., LL.D., L.H.D., 1899- ?
periodical=Journal of the National Medical Association

External links

* [ Percy Julian Chemistry and Civil Rights Resources from Teachers' Domain]
* [ Bernhard Witkop memoir of Julian]
* [ Profile of Percy Julian] - The Black Inventor Online Museum
* [ Chemical Heritage Foundation]
* [ Percy Julian at Find-A-Grave]
* [ Julian Archives at DePauw University]
* [ PBS Nova documentary and video]
* [ Video] of a talk by Nova producer Steve Lyons on the creation of the Percy Julian PBS documentary

NAME= Percy Lavon Julian
SHORT DESCRIPTION=African-American chemist
DATE OF BIRTH= April 11, 1899
PLACE OF BIRTH= Montgomery, Alabama, United States
DATE OF DEATH= April 19, 1975
PLACE OF DEATH= Waukegan, Illinois, United States

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