Black History Moments

Since February is Black History month, and since most of us know so little of our shared history I thought I’d do a weekly spot highlighting a important but little known factoid…so here’s on one Percy Julian…

PBS ran a special on him last night (which I didn’t get to see). b. 1899, d. 1975. He was a pioneering chemistwho developed several synthetic drugs and vitamins, including hormones and cortisone. In 1916 he graduated negro normal school and entered DePauw. While working, taking high-school classes to make up for some weaknesses, he did well enough to become their Valedictorian and a member Phi Beta Kappa. He wanted to pursue doctoral work, but was not allowed to since he was black. He had numerous academic positions over his life at Fisk, Howard, WV State. He did get his masters from Harvard and finally a doctorate in 1931, from U. of Vienna, Austria.

Why should you care? If you’ve ever had a cortisone shot, you should thank him. He found a way to create synthetic versions of important drugs that saved individuals from blindness, gave relief from arthritis, and male and female sex hormones (these drugs naturally occur but not in enough quantities to be be mass produced). Though schools declined to have him as their head of department, Glidden Company made him chief chemist in 1936. During that time, he found how useful soy beans and yams were in the creation of these synthetic drugs. He also created a flame retarding foam that was used to save many military lives on ships and planes.   

Info. from Africana(1999) ed. by Appiah and Gates.


Filed under Black and White, Black History, Civil Rights

2 responses to “Black History Moments

  1. Additional note. I’ve watched a good chunk of the PBS special on Julian. He was a brilliant man with a drive to succeed that most of us don’t have or would have given up if we faced the rejections and personal trials he faced.

  2. Phil,

    Sorry I’m getting to this one so late. I saw that PBS special. It was part of the Nova series. I stumbled upon it 10 minutes into the show while flipping channels, and I couldn’t get up from the sofa for the next two hours!

    You’re right–he was a brilliant man! I was even more enthralled when I discovered his Chicago connections, since I live in the Chi-Town area. I knew that there were schools named after him in the city and some suburbs, but I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know who he was until watching that special. It was an extremely well-produced program that not only inspired me with the story of how Julian overcame racism and other setbacks to become one of the world’s most accomplished chemists, but it actually made me wish I would’ve paid more attention to chemistry and other science subjects when I was in high school.

    If anyone out there hasn’t seen this special, you’ll definitely want to put it on your list!

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