The remarkable life story of pioneering African American chemist Percy Julian is the subject of a two-hour PBS/NOVA documentary to air Feb. 6 during Black History Month. The grandson of Alabama slaves, Julian won world-wide fame for his accomplishments in organic chemistry, especially in the synthesis of medicinal drugs.
Entitled "Forgotten Genius," the film, in the words of Jim Shoffner, Ph.D., a former member of the Board of Directors of the American Chemical Society, honors a man who "was an inspirational and motivational figure for many young men and women. Although this was especially true for students and researchers of color, it was more generally true for all, no matter what their race, ethnicity or gender."
Percy Lavon Julian was born in Montgomery, Ala., on April 11, 1899, the son of a railway clerk. Julian's schooling was spotty in the segregated South of the early 20th century. Even so, he was accepted at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., where he excelled, graduating in 1920 as class valedictorian.
Julian chose chemistry as a career, but he was discouraged from seeking admission to graduate school because of racial prejudice. Instead, he took the advice of an advisor and accepted a position as an instructor of chemistry at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. After two years at Fisk, Julian won an Austin Fellowship to Harvard where he received his M.A. in 1923.
In 1929 Julian won a Rockefeller Foundation grant, which he used to earn his doctorate in natural products chemistry at the University of Vienna in 1931. Julian returned to DePauw University in 1933 as a research fellow. It was at DePauw in 1935 that Julian completed research on the synthesis of physostigmine, a drug used in the treatment of glaucoma. This work established Julian as world-renowned chemist, but he was denied a faculty position at DePauw.