Percy Lavon Julian (1899 - 1975) was born in Montgomery Alabama in 1899. The grandson of enslaved people, Julian grew up in the segregated south where education was limited for non-whites, meaning he needed to take two years of remedial classes alongside his chemistry degree at DePauw University. Even so he excelled, graduating first in his class.
Racial tensions made it hard for Julian to be accepted for doctoral studies in the US and he moved to Vienna to complete a PhD on the chemistry of medicinal plants. After returning to the States, he again struggled to find an academic position despite success as a research fellow, including publishing the first total synthesis of physostigmine, an alkaloid from the Calabar bean, used to treat glaucoma. He left academia for a career in industry, as director of research of the soybean division at the Glidden Company.
At Glidden, Julian discovered a way to concentrate and isolate stigmasterol, a steroid present in soyabean oil, enabling the synthesis of progesterone on affordable commercial scales, and paving the way for the contraceptive pill. A pioneer in the pharmaceutical industry, he eventually founded his own company, Julian Laboratories, specialising in the synthesis of steroids from the Mexican yam. His company employed talented chemists including African Americans and women who could not find employment with other pharmaceutical companies in the 1950s. Selling the company to Smith, Kline, and French (now incorporated into GSK) in 1965 made him one of the first Black millionaires in the United States.
"It shows that whatever the odds, talent should rise to the top. For me, it wasn't that Percy ascended to the top, it was that he widened opportunities for others.” - Dr Mike Edwards, Keele University