Percy Julian

Quick Look at Julian

Percy Julian was a research chemist responsible for figuring out how to synthesize medicinal drugs and compounds. He was a pioneer in medical research as well as one of the first Black millionaires. His synthesis of physostigmine was recognized as "one of the top 25 achievements in the history of American chemistry."

Early Life

Percy Lavon Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama on April 11, 1899. His grandparents were former slaves and his father was a railway mail clerk. There were no high schools that Julian was allowed to go to as a Black student, so he attended DePauw University as a sub-freshman, taking high school and college courses simultaneously. Despite the challenge of the additional courses to catch up with his peers, Julian graduated first in his class.


After graduating, Julian accepted a position as a chemistry professor at Fisk University. He stayed there for two years before winning an Austin Fellowship that got him into Harvard University. He got his master's degree in organic chemistry and went back to teaching, as Harvard would not allow him to earn his Ph.D. After teaching at HBCUs for a few years, Julian earned his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna in 1931.


Julian returned to DePauw University to continue his research. In 1935, he used synthesis to create a drug treatment for glaucoma, earning global recognition. Despite this, DePauw refused to make him a professor because he was Black. He applied for many different positions throughout his career but faced constant rejection because of his race. The syntheses he later achieved helped prevent miscarriages, treat rheumatoid arthritis, and produce and convert hormones. He also invented Aero-Foam through the process of synthesis. This creation was used widely throughout World War II.

In 1954, he founded his own company called Julian Laboratories before selling it in 1961. This made him one of the first Black millionaires. After selling his company, Julian founded a nonprofit organization called the Julian Research Institute. He ran this organization for the rest of his life. In 1973, Julian became the first Black chemist elected to the National Academy of the Sciences. He passed away from liver cancer on April 19, 1975. In 1990, he was elected into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. 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."

Julian's pioneer research was revolutionary in the field of chemistry despite the discriminative barriers he faced throughout his lifetime. He was a legend, a hero, and a leader.