Posted in Miscellany

Percy Julian, an African-American Pioneer in Chemistry

Born in 1899, Percy Julian was a famous African-American chemist who, among many other accomplishments, was best known for synthesizing medicines from plants, particularly involving the manufacture of cortisone. It’s hard now for us to realize what a new wonder drug cortisone was in the early 50’s. People with arthritis, who were completely crippled. Until Julian and others figured out how to synthesize it cheaply, an ounce of cortisone cost a 100 times as much as an ounce of gold.

Among his many accomplishments, as a young man he’d earned his PhD in Europe while also enjoying a whirlwind of society, wine, women and hanging out with Jewish intellectuals.

Some years later, when Julian had established his own business, he faced an unexpected obstacle. The supply of plant materials (yams) that he needed from Mexico was being blocked by another company, which bribed Mexican authorities. Desperate, broke, he thought he’d reached the end of the road. Just at that time, this occurred:

And then a strange thing happened. There was a knock on the door, and in came a man named Abraham Zlotnik, a man that I had helped out of Hitler’s Germany. Abe said he was sure the yam grew in Guatemala, and he volunteered to make an expedition for me. I told him I was broke, ruined. I didn’t know when I could pay him back. But he said, “You’ve already paid me back.”

The yams were obatined, and from that time Julian’s labs became successful and Percy Julian became a multi-millionaire, the richest African-American of his time.

Percy Julian had had his share of obstacles and hurdles due to racism. He overcame

Percy Lavon Julian

them through talent and persistence, and in the 1960’s he was a leader who put his resources and gifts into the civil rights movement. But the story that touched me the most was this side note of his life that involved hands reaching across continent, race, religion and time to help one another and in so doing help millions of people who take cortisone for granted.

He was a man of courage, inventiveness, intelligence, and eloquence. This is what he said about his graduation:

At commencement time, my great-grandmother bared her shoulders, and she showed me, for the first time, the deep scars that had remained from a beating she had received when, one day, during the waning days of the Civil War, she went through the Negro quarters and cried out, “Get yourselves ready, children. The Yankees are coming. The Lord has heard our prayers!” And then, proudly, she took my Phi Beta Kappa key in her hand and said, “This is worth all the scars.”

He rather reminds me of another eloquent African-American. I think Percy Julian would be much pleased about the White House’s current residents.



Lilian is the author of Web of Angels, a novel about a mom with DID (multiple personalities). She's also the author of the historical novels, The River Midnight and The Singing Fire, about secrets, friendship and motherhood in 19th century Poland and London.

3 thoughts on “Percy Julian, an African-American Pioneer in Chemistry

    1. I thought so, too, Litlove and that fact is missing from the Wikipedia article. I saw a wonderful documentary about Julian on TVO, and so knowing the connection I could find a link through google, but otherwise wouldn’t have discovered it.

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