[Nameplate] Rain ~ 48°F  
High: 56°F ~ Low: 44°F
Wednesday, May 4, 2016

PBS special features Julian

Monday, January 15, 2007

Percy Lavon Julian at work in DePauw's former Minshall Lab. Photo courtesy of DePauw Archives.
The legacy of one of Greencastle's most famous residents will be honored and celebrated on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2007, when the celebrated PBS program NOVA presents a two-hour documentary on Percy Lavon Julian, titled "Forgotten Genius."

The program, which describes how the research of the 1920 DePauw University graduate continues to impact our lives, will air at 8 p.m. to an estimated audience of more than six million people.

"Percy Julian's research brought attention and respect to Greencastle and DePauw, and this program will educate many people about the important contributions he made to science in our community," Greencastle Mayor Nancy Michael says. "I urge citizens -- especially parents with children -- to tune in."

"DePauw is pleased to be the alma mater of Dr. Julian, and we are delighted that he is being honored in such a national and notable way," President Robert G. Bottoms adds.

Born in 1899 in Montgomery, Ala., the grandson of slaves, Julian was raised by his mother, Elizabeth, who was a school teacher, and his father, James, who graduated from the State Normal College for Negroes before going to work for the U.S. Postal System on the railroad. Percy Julian graduated from the eighth grade at an all-black school, but there was no public high school for African Americans in Montgomery for him to continue his education. His family greatly valued education and had learned through friends of the educational opportunities at DePauw University. Percy left home at age 17 to travel to Greencastle and enroll as a pre-freshman at DePauw. Because he was inadequately prepared for college, he took classes at the Greencastle High School in addition to his regular college courses. He also had to work to pay his college expenses.

In spite of his academic and financial challenges, Julian excelled at DePauw. His success after his freshman year encouraged his family; they began to look for an opportunity to relocate to Greencastle so that all of his siblings could have access to greater educational opportunities. Because he was an employee of the U.S. railway mail system, James Julian was able to request a transfer to the rail line running through Greencastle. His request was granted, and the family moved in 1918 -- later purchasing a home at 715 Crown Street. The Julian family lived in Greencastle until 1939, and in 1993 their home was named to the Indiana Register of Historic Sites and Structures.

Julian's siblings -- James, Mattie, Irma, Elizabeth and Emerson -- lived in the family home in Greencastle. All attended and were graduated from Greencastle High School. All six of the Julian children attended DePauw, and five were graduated from the university. James became a physician; Mattie was the first black woman to graduate from DePauw (with honors), becoming a teacher and later earning a M.B.A. degree; Elizabeth became a teacher; Irma had a career as a social worker; and Emerson earned his M.D. and practiced medicine. The family of James and Elizabeth Julian was truly remarkable for the early 20th century: -- six children, all college graduates, one Ph.D., one M.B.A. and two M.D.s.

Though diversity was not new to DePauw, which had admitted international students and African American students in the 1880s, Julian and his siblings were not welcomed by all in the college community. Mattie reported after a happy 50th reunion with her classmates: "If only they had been as welcoming when we were students."

Despite his personal challenges on campus, Julian was an excellent chemistry student at DePauw, studying in Minshall Laboratory. Faculty members recognized his intellectual promise and mentored the gifted African American student. In 1920, Julian graduated first in his class and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, the most distinguished academic honorary.

But even with his outstanding academic record, Julian was not selected to receive an assistantship or fellowship to enter graduate school -- because of his race. There was no encouragement for him to continue his education because of the lack of job opportunities. Instead, Percy found a position as instructor in chemistry at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. After two years at Fisk, he won an Austin Fellowship to Harvard University and earned a M.A. degree in 1923. Again, despite his strong academic and research record, there was no job offer forthcoming for this talented African American other than at black institutions. Julian taught at West Virginia State College and at Howard University, where he was appointed head of the chemistry department.

In 1929, after the disappointing experience of not being able to pursue doctoral studies in the U.S., Julian was fortunate to receive a Rockefeller Foundation Grant to study with the distinguished chemist Ernst Spath at the University of Vienna. He earned his doctorate in 1931 and returned to Howard University for two additional years.

In 1933, Julian accepted an appointment to return to DePauw as a research fellow at Minshall Laboratory, where he directed research projects for senior chemistry majors. This was a wonderful opportunity for Julian, and he was pleased to be back in Greencastle with his family and at his alma mater where two siblings were completing their educations.

The senior research project launched in 1933 by Julian and his colleague, Joseph Pikl, was highly successful, producing 11 articles published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society over three years. Many of the students mentored by Julian went on to earn doctoral degrees and worked with him in industry.

In addition to their work supporting students, Julian and Pikl completed research that resulted in the total synthesis of physostigmine -- competing with Sir Robert Robinson of Oxford University, who was one of England's foremost chemists. Publication of this work established Julian's reputation as a world-renowned chemist at the age of 36.

At the same time, DePauw's trustees told Julian that he must cease offering instruction to students and vacate Minshall Laboratory. Despite the recommendations of the president and academic dean that Julian be granted a faculty position, the trustees rejected his appointment, stating that "the times were not right for a Negro to be named to the faculty of DePauw University."

Frustrated by his inability to secure a teaching position, Julian turned to industry. In 1935, Julian was offered a position at the Institute of Paper Chemistry, but a local statute, stating "No Negro should be bed or boarded overnight in Appleton," ended that hope. In 1936, a Glidden vice president learned of Julian's brilliance at a meeting in Appleton and hired him as assistant director of research of the Soya Products Division, where he quickly became director. During 18 years with Glidden, Julian built a great research facility, and he was the first black chemist to direct research at a major corporation.

The results of his soybean protein research produced many patents and successful products for Glidden. They included a fire-retardant foam called "Navy Bean Soup," widely used in WWII to extinguish gasoline fires on aircraft carriers. His biomedical research made it possible to synthetically produce large quantities of cortisone and progesterone at low cost.

In 1953, Julian left Glidden and founded Julian Laboratories, a successful business that he sold for more than $2 million in 1961. He later established the non-profit Julian Research Institute and worked there until his death in 1975.

Julian's many honors include election to the National Academy of Scientists in 1973 and 19 honorary doctorates. He was also the first-ever recipient of DePauw's McNaughton Medal for Public Service. Perhaps based upon his personal experience, Julian was widely recognized as a human rights advocate. In 1990, he was elected to the National Inventor's Hall of Fame, and in 1993 the U.S. Postal Service honored him by issuing the Julian stamp in the Black Heritage Series. In 1999, Greencastle re-named First Street to Percy Julian Drive.

NOVA's producers visited DePauw and Greencas-tle several times in recent years as they compiled information and interviews for the program. Among the people they interviewed were Donald "Jack" Cook, professor emeritus of chemistry at DePauw, who was a lifelong friend of the Julian family and has since died.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: