African-American Pioneers in Science

Percy Lavon Julian (1899 - 1975)

Percy Lavon Julian Photo

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Organic Chemist


Montgomery Alabama


B.A. Chemistry, DePauw University
M.S. Chemistry, Harvard University
Ph.D. Organic Chemistry, University of Vienna

  • Percy Lavon Julian
  • African-American pioneer in chemical engineering
  • Synthesized testosterone, progesterone and cortisone
  • Owner of over 130 chemical patents
  • First African-American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences

Organic Chemist Percy Lavon Julian was born on April 11, 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama. He was the first of six children born to father James, a clerk for the United States Post Office Railway Service, and mother, Elizabeth, a school teacher. At a time in the south when few blacks pursued education past the eighth grade, his parents encouraged all of their children to pursue higher education. Julian applied and was accepted into DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. While attending DePauw, he took high school classes at night in order to make up for the earlier education he had missed. Julian earned his B.A in chemistry from DePauw in 1920 graduating Phi Beta Kappa and class valedictorian.

Following his graduation, Julian took a position at Fisk University as chemistry instructor while continuing to pursue advanced degrees. He left in 1923 to accept a scholarship from Harvard University, where he earned his M.S. in chemistry. Julian intended to stay at Harvard to pursue a Ph.D., however this required that he become an assistant professor. Worried that this would create a problem with white students, the university denied him the appointment.

Following Harvard, Julian completed a stint a Howard University as an instructor before deciding to pursue his doctorate in Europe. He earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1931 from Austria's University of Vienna. After returning to the U.S., Dr. Julian returned to DePauw to teach and in 1935, teamed with Josef Pikl to become the first chemists to successfully synthesize physostigmine (a drug used today to treat glaucoma and Alzheimer's).

Denied a professorship at DePauw because of his race, Dr. Julian joined the Glidden company in 1936 as a plant supervisor. While at Glidden he primarily worked on finding new uses for soybean oil. He invented "Aero-Foam", a soy protein based product that was used extensively during World War II to put out gas and oil fires. His most important work at Glidden was synthesizing stigmasterol from soybean oil which then led to the synthesis of the steroid hormones testosterone (male sex hormone) and progesterone. Progesterone is used today to treat miscarriages and to make birth control pills. He also synthesized cortisone, a drug used to treat arthritis.

Dr. Julian left Glidden in 1953 and founded his own research company, Julian Laboratories, Inc. in 1954. The company mainly specialized in the production of progesterone from Mexican wild yam and over the years, through Dr. Julian's innovative work, was able to reduce progesterone production costs ten-fold. In 1961, he sold his company to Smith Kline and French and stayed on with the company as president until 1964. That same year Dr. Julian founded Julian Associates and Julian Research Institute whose charters were the discovery and synthesis of pharmaceutical drugs.

In 1973, in recognition of his achievements, Dr. Julian was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences - becoming the first African-American chemist and only the second African-American overall to be inducted.