Scientist Overcame Discrimination to Revolutionize Treatment of Glaucoma and Arthritis
Like many African Americans of his generation, Percy Lavon Julian is little known by name yet lives on through his legacy.
He revolutionized the treatment of glaucoma and arthritis, making drugs that once cost hundreds of dollars per drop available for a few cents per gram. He figured out ways to use soybeans for everything from food to fire extinguishers. His face graces a postal stamp and his work on physostigmine in treating glaucoma has been declared a national historic chemical landmark by the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society.
These achievements are all the more remarkable given the circumstances of Julian's life. Born in 1899 in Montgomery, Ala., he was barred from the college preparatory program in the public high school. Nonetheless, Julian gained admittance to DePauw University in Indiana, a predominantly white school that accepted African American students. As he left the family home to pursue his ambition to become a chemist, his grandfather, a former slave, waved goodbye with a three-fingered hand - the two missing fingers had been severed as punishment for learning to read.
Julian worked his way through DePauw by digging ditches and waiting tables at a fraternity and in 1920, he graduated at the top of his class with a Phi Beta Kappa key. Eager to earn an advanced degree, his professors discouraged him, saying he would
Contact: Beverly Hassell
American Chemical Society