Once upon a time in Black Entrepreneur History was an African American man named Percy Lavon Julian who became founder of Julian Laboratories, Inc as well as inventor of the patented Foam Technique and the process to synthesize human sex hormones from plants as well as the synthesis of physostigmine for the treatment of the blinding ocular disease glaucoma.
Born in Montgomery, Alabama on April 11, 1899 to father James Sumner Julian and his mother Elizabeth Lena Adams, who were both graduates of Lincoln Normal School (now known as Alabama State University), which was originally founded for African Americans to become teachers, Percy Lavon was guided into education being of top priority.
Therefore, at the appropriate time, Percy Lavon went to Indiana to enroll in DePauw University, hoping to escape the Jim Crow laws of the South and attend high school, however, he ran into similar problems with education and living. He had to barter in order to have a roof over his head and even eat because he was rejected when it came to living in the dorms due to racism. Food and shelter were obstacles he overcame by working in return for accommodations needed. Atop that, because he didn’t officially graduate from high school in the South because there was no African American high school to attend, he had to take both college course and high school courses at the same time.
Through it all, Percy Lavon graduated valedictorian and ended up striving to continue his education to gain a doctorate degree. Doors were slammed in his face because of his race, and even teaching positions were revoked because he was a Black person and whites didn’t want to be taught by blacks.
In 1929, he was able to teach at Howard University and then transfer into Austria in order to gain his doctorate at the University of Vienna. Obtaining this doctorate in 1931 made him one in only a few African Americans to have received a Doctorate in Chemistry at the time.
Back in the USA, he began to teach Organic Chemistry at his alma mater DePauw, and it was here that he and a comrade Pikl completed the total synthesis of physostigmine and confirmed its structural formula from the African calabar bean, debunking the erroneous formula published in the UK. Because of Julian’s synthesis, one was able to provide treatment for the ocular disease which could lead to blindness – glaucoma. He also synthesized cortisone for arthritis.
When he went up for professorship in 1936 at the University after all his work, he was declined because of his race as a Black man.
From there, in 1940 he went to work at Glidden as the director of research where he focused on synthesizing human sex hormones from plant sterols using soybean oil from his invented and patented foam technique. It worked! Progesterone, estrogen and testosterone were now being synthesized from plants thanks to Dr. Percy Lavon Julian!
This plant based synthesis of human hormones was groundbreaking, allowing for more readily available treatments at a lesser price than what was previously offered from pharmaceutical companies.
In 1953, though groundbreaking, the company Glidden stopped it’s work on steroids, so it was then that Dr. Percy Lavon Julian left to open his black-owned company, founding Julian Laboratories, Inc. in Franklin Park, Illinois. It was his company that was in direct competition with other labs, gaining contracts to produce sex hormones until he sold it in 1961 for $2 million. Julian Laboratories had a full staff, including women scientists.
Throughout his career, he did find time for love and family, marrying Anna Roselle, on December 24, 1935 in Indiana. They were both in their thirties. They had two children.
Dr. Percy Lavon Julian passed away on April 19, 1975 after founding the Julian Research Institute. He became the 1st African American inducted into the National Academy of Sciences for Chemistry and the second overall.
In 1993, there was a commemorative stamp in honor of Dr. Julian as part of the US Postal Services Black History Series. He was also inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 1990.
Ancestry.com. Indiana, Marriages, 1810-2001 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.