Role Models: Percy Lavon Julian

Who was Dr Julian?

Dr Percy Lavon Julian became a pioneer and leader in the chemical industry. His work included a foam for fire extinguishers that saved lives during World War 2, helping a Jewish scientist leave the Axis-controlled Austria, medical treatments for hundreds of diseases through steroid-based medicines and discoveries that led to birth control – a drug that has given billions of women security and choice in their own lives. Other great things he has done include becoming only the 3rd African-American to achieve a Ph.D. in chemistry and being awarded a Spingarn medal (an award recognising huge achievements of African-Americans in the U.S.A. – alongside the likes of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey). An all-round hero, in short.

Dr Percy Lavon Julian with the structure of one his breakthrough syntheses – physostigmine.
Image stylised from this image – the original source of which is unclear.

These incredible achievements are all despite African-Americans like him rarely being educated beyond about 13 years old – his parents had to fight for his, and his siblings’, access to Higher Education. While studying at college (roughly equivalent to a U.K. university), Julian had to find places that would even allow him to eat there – a result of the abhorrent ‘Jim Crow’ laws that sound exactly like the pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm: ‘equal but separate’.  Throughout his career he was denied positions because of the racist views of academia at the time. Julian’s own grandfather had been a slave. The achievements that Julian made in his lifetime really cannot be understated when you consider all of this…. (I have a policy of not swearing on this website but at the moment it is difficult)… bull excrement.

Image credit: U.S. Postal Service, 1993.
View the whole series of Black Heritage U.S.A. stamps at https://web.archive.org/web/20060428213659/http://www.usps.com/cpim/ftp/pubs/pub354.pdf (archived)

Discoveries

Dr Julian’s first major breakthrough was the first total synthesis of a chemical called physostigmine. Total synthesis is a term used in chemistry to mean making a chemical all the way from really simple starting materials that are readily available. The alternative is to extract a chemical that is similar to the target chemical and modifying it slightly to get the original target. Extraction and modification can be hugely expensive and it can be really difficult to get the extract in the first place! To be able to make a chemical in large enough quantities to be able to make a medicine, a total synthesis is almost always necessary. The drug physostigmine was used to treat glaucoma – a disease of the eyes that can cause blindness. Dr Julian and Josef Pikl first synthesised physostigmine in 1935 and it is still used medicinally to this day.

The real career-defining work for Dr Julian was in finding cheaper, more accessible ways to produce steroids. These are chemicals that are found in plants, fungi and animals and are involved in thousands of processes. Oestrogen and testosterone (sex hormones) are both steroids. Athletes might use anabolic steroids to try and become stronger to cheat in a sport. You might even have food at home that is designed to try and reduce the amount of one particular steroid in your body – cholesterol. They really do get everywhere. Some of these steroids can have really useful properties as medicines, so to be able to cheaply produce a lot of them was a massive breakthrough.

These days, Dr Julian would probably have written a paper with a title like ‘15 AMAZING uses for SOYBEANS – you won’t believe #5!’.

Dr Julian found many medical uses for soybean products – including making a foam that could be used on ships in the navy to extinguish fires (these fires were often started by oil so water could have made the situation worse). Given that this discovery came during the Second World War it probably saved many, many lives. Finding many uses from one easily-available crop like soy is fantastic because even the waste products from making one product can be used to make another. A similar story is that of George Washington Carver – another dedicated scientist – who found a whole host of uses for peanuts (which he encouraged farmers to grow to improve the quality of the soil and help provide a better income for poor farmers).

An accident in a chemical plant led to the production of a solid white compound. This usually means a massive clean-up operation and the loss of a lot of money for the plant. However, if you have the right person there at the right time, like Dr Julian was, it might just be the discovery of a new way to produce huge amounts of your target compound. It really is true – you make your own luck. Yes, it was a lucky discovery – but – he had to be there and have the brains to realise what had been discovered. This is a similar story to the discovery of polythene – the material that has now spread to every surface of the planet (including the deepest part of the ocean).

Accidental discoveries are more common than you might think! Always look for the silver lining in unexpected results.

The compound that had been made accidentally was stigmasterol which could be easily converted into progesterone – a hormone that is used medicinally to treat some of the negative impacts of the menopause. Another use of these hormones is to control the menstrual cycle enough to avoid pregnancy – birth control. A great team of scientists helped turn the discovery into a wide-spread product – Carl Djerassi, George Rosenkranz and Russel Earl Maker. The availability of birth control gives women around the world the ability to choose and control what happens to their body – a kind of freedom that simply is not appreciated well (or, given recent news, accepted at all) enough by men. There are instances where becoming pregnant would cripple the finances of the woman, harm or even kill her.

The easy conversion of plant sterols into drugs that mimic human sex humans has made birth control possible and affordable to produce.

Legacy

Dr Julian pushed the chemical industry forwards in huge strides but he also committed himself to supporting and advancing the Civil Rights movement in the U.S.A. and founded part of the Legal Defense and Education fund, in Chicago. He was awarded and highly respected for all aspects of his career. His chemistry has been described as ‘elegant’ which is about the highest praise an organic chemist can pass on to another. I really could not think of a better example of a person having to deal with so much adversity and still being committed to helping people and doing truly exceptional work.

More articles on Dr Julian

Including an entire memoir of his life.

https://www.sciencehistory.org/historical-profile/percy-lavon-julian

https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/percy-lavon-julian-6712.php

https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2007/januaryfebruary/feature/percy-julian

https://blog.chembark.com/2007/04/10/percy-julian-amazing-chemist-but-forgotten-genius/

https://www.thezodiac.net/percy-julian/

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