Percy Lavon Julian, Ph.D.
1899 - 1975
Percy Julian is the grandchild of slaves that were held captive in Alabama. Julian grew up to become a world-renowned scientist. This remarkable feat is noteworthy because of the era he lived. Black people were discouraged from entering STEM fields, especially chemistry.
The chemistry invented by Julian led to the creation of soybean oil, plastics, linoleum flooring, latex paints plywood glue, high protein livestock feed, scores of kitchen goods including shortening and non spattering margarine, and dog foods.
Julian's childhood literacy was a result of his father's sacrifice. Julian's parents recognized the importance of education for success. So, with expendable income, Julian's father bought books and loaded the family library. This decision by the family patriarch was likely as influential as any in Julian's life. Since library's were shuttered to Black citizens due to Jim Crow, this family library offered the only opportunity to gain literacy skills.
To avoid the racial hatred and bigotry outside of his workplace, Julian continued his research and combining endless formulas in his home before discovering the 'secret chemistry of plants.' As written by Gaius Chamberlain with the Black Inventor Online Museum, "Percy... next developed a way to inexpensively develop male and female hormones from soy beans. These hormones would help to prevent miscarriages in pregnant women and would be used to fight cancer and other ailments. Julian was also master gardner who grew different flowers. He believed flowers provided their own unique laboratory. Julian's fascination with flowers stemmed from the abundance of flowers and their endless ability to solve great human mysteries.
Julian accepted the fellowship opportunity to complete his Ph.D. in Vienna, Austria because Vienna was the international seat of natural products chemistry – central to the development of organic chemistry.
Sadly, the world's leader in chemical research found himself jobless even after making the industry's greatest scientific breakthrough, due to racism and resentment. Large firms in the United States that could have used Julian's services and advanced in the field, opted against his hire because they, "never hired a negro chemical researcher before, and don't know how it would work out." The white supremacist misconception of a master race having a heightened intellectual capacity was destroyed by the brilliance of Percy Julian.
What motivated Julian to pursue chemistry? St. Elmo Brady, the first Black person to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry.