Percy Lavon Julian was an African-American chemistry researcher who was born in Montgomery, Ala., April 11. Julian was a major pioneer of the chemical synthesis of medical drugs from plants, and he created steroids, cortisone and birth control pills that are all still being used to this very day for a variety of essential purposes. Julian faced many challenges growing up as an African-American, especially in the time period of 1899.
As Julian was born 34 years after slavery ended, he still had to face segregation and discrimination because of the color of his skin. While living in Montgomery, Julian was not able to attend high school because there were simply no high schools for African-Americans. Instead, he went to a teacher training school for Black people. But this simply helped Julian become a chemistry researcher. From 1916 to 1920, Julian was enrolled in DePauw University and graduated first in his class with a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry. In 1923, Julian was the first African-American to earn his master’s degree in Chemistry from Harvard University, and in 1931 he earned a doctorate in chemistry. In 1942, Julian extracted a soybean protein that led to the advancement of a fire retardant foam that was capable of saving soldiers’ lives in World War II. Furthermore, he discovered a formula for making artificial hormones and found a way to create synthetic cortisone for arthritis sufferers who could not afford cortisone.
“I don’t think that you can possibly embrace the kind of joy which one who has worked with plants and plant structures such as I have over a period of nearly 40 years, how wonderful the plant laboratory seems,” said Julian.
At the age of 76, Julian died from liver cancer in 1975. Although he is physically gone, his work still benefits millions of people.