Celebrating Black History Month with Dr. Percy Lavon Julian, a pioneer in the chemistry of plant

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 — Percy Julian

Percy Lavon Julian [1]
Segregation in America

First obstacle

Second obstacle

Percy Lavon Julian at DePauw University

Third obstacle

William Martin Blanchard

Fourth obstacle

Saint Elmo Brady
Percy Julian’s Lab

And the dream became true

For example, you know that coffee contains a substance, that can keep you awake. The goal of natural product chemistry is to understand this natural product (here caffeine), characterise it, and synthesise it since in those (pre Nuclear Magnetic Resonance days) days a successful synthesis was the ultimate proof of structure.
Some plants will use alkaloids to protect themselves from organisms that would eat or harm them. But the same compounds had unexpected effects on people.

Well known alkaloids today are caffeine, nicotine, morphine, cocaine, etc.
Lots of drugs (both medicinal and recreational) are in fact plant alkaloids.
Corydalis cava

When diversity means inclusion

Julian Percy at a lecturer for Radion Wien in 1931

“An extraordinary student, the likes of which I have never had before in my career as a teacher.”

Back to the United States — The end of his academic career

Synthesis of physostigmine

Calabar bean
Sir Robert Robinson

And his industrial career begins

”We did not know you were a negro”, they said.

“We never hired a black research chemist before we do not know how it will work out”.

Soybeans and applications

Percy at Glidden Soy plant
Glidden Paints division

Progesterones and sex hormones

Cortisone for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis
Image by Humanitas university
Julian’s home got firebombed

“I feel that my own country robbed me of the chances of some of the great experiences, I would have liked to live through.

I took a job where I could get one, and tried to make the best of it.

I have been perhaps a good chemist, but not the chemist that I have dreamed of being.”


Percy Lavon Julian



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Dr. Audrey-Flore Ngomsik

Dr. Audrey-Flore Ngomsik

Co-Fonder of Trianon Scientific Communication. Expert in Corporate Social Responsibility & Sustainable Development for profitability— www.science-by-trianon.com