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Percy Julian in his laboratory

OLD GOLD: Percy Julian, unappreciated in his time, inspires today

While I never met Percy L. Julian, a 1920 DePauw graduate, my career has been influenced by him. As a student I was named a Percy L. Julian scholar, which besides a monetary component afforded me the opportunity to meet Julian’s widow Anna and their children Percy Jr. and Faith. It wasn’t until after I joined the DePauw faculty that I gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of what made Julian one of the greatest chemists of the 20th century.

Julian, whose grandmother bore the whip marks of her enslavement, arrived at DePauw with only 10 years of formal education, more than most African Americans in the South but too little to prepare him for college work. Despite double the workload in his first two years to make up for his deficiencies, he graduated at the top of the Class of 1920. Perhaps by then he understood his own potential.

Jeff Hansen '86, chemistry professor
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Unlike his classmates who went on to graduate school, Julian left DePauw to teach at black colleges. He never gave up on his conviction that he should study for a doctorate and eventually went to Austria to do so. Upon his return to the United States he was frustrated by inadequate facilities to carry out his research. DePauw hired him in 1932 to supervise lab sections and pursue his research.

Julian was working to synthesize physostigmine to treat glaucoma. He was competing against Robert Robinson, a famed chemist with considerably more resources. Although Robinson published first, Julian found an error that he subsequently exposed in his own publication. It is difficult to overstate Julian’s boldness here, an example of Julian acting on his strong conviction. When he felt he was right he stood up for himself or his ideals regardless of opposition he faced.

Despite that accomplishment, DePauw’s Board of Trustees denied Julian a tenure-track position, and he departed in 1936 for Glidden Co. During his career there and later at his own company, Julian secured more than 130 patents. He primarily worked to develop products from soybeans and Mexican yams. One of his inventions was a fire-suppressing foam that saved lives during World War II. He was also instrumental in developing a chemical synthesis of cortisone that provided relief for people suffering from severe rheumatoid arthritis and is still used to treat inflammatory diseases today.

Clearly Julian’s chemistry work set him apart; I have no doubt that, had he been white, he would have been one of the most highly regarded organic chemists in the world and may even have won a Nobel Prize. In this year of the 100th anniversary of Julian’s graduation from DePauw, we should be inspired by the strength of his convictions and courage to act on them. Let us be inspired to ensure all students have the support they need.

 

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