Ira Lavon Julian was a well respected scientist who conducted ground-breaking research on the chemical synthesis of medications derived from plants. His meticulous study resulted in the mass manufacturing of medications including cortisone, steroids, and birth control pills.
He had to struggle to achieve his aim because he was born the grandson of a freed slave in the racially separated United States of America. He was denied a good education as a young man and had to obtain his Ph. D. in Vienna.
He was then denied a chair at DePauw University despite the fact that he had at that point gained notoriety for synthesising physostigmine, a medication crucial for treating glaucoma.
When he was older, his home was firebombed for the crime of living in a neighbourhood with a large white population. Nevertheless, he persisted and went on to patent 130 items. In the end, his perseverance paid off.
He eventually started to garner attention. His life story was published in 1946 in Reader’s Digest, a well-known US monthly magazine, with the title “The Man Who Wouldn’t Give Up.” He truly never gave up.
Early Life and Education
On April 11, 1899, Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama. Being the grandson of former slaves and one of six children born to Elizabeth Lena Adams and James Sumner, Julian received minimal formal education while growing up. Black people at the time had restricted access to public schooling in Montgomery.
Julian enrolled at DePauw University as a “sub-freshman” and graduated as the top student in his class in 1920. After receiving a master’s degree from Harvard University in 1923, Julian went on to teach chemistry at Fisk University. Julian obtained his doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1931.
Julian married Anna Roselle on December 24, 1935, and she later went on to receive a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1937. Until Julian’s passing in the middle of the 1970s, they remained wed.
When he created physostigmine from the Calabar bean in 1935, Julian cemented his reputation as an inventor at DePauw University. Over the course of three years, Julian and his helper Josef Pikl published a series of publications in the Journal of the American Chemical Society that described their synthetic process for producing physostigmine. This was a crucial phase in the creation of the glaucoma treatment physostigmine, which is still in use today.
Later, Julian rose to the position of director of research at the Glidden Company, a producer of paint and varnish. He created a method for isolating and preparing soybean protein, which could be used to scale textiles, coat paper, and make cold water paints. Julian created Aero foam during World War II using a soy protein, which extinguishes fires caused by gasoline and oil.
Julian is best known for creating synthetic cortisone from soybeans, which is used to treat inflammatory diseases including rheumatoid arthritis. The cost of cortisone dropped thanks to his synthesis. In 1990, Julian earned the 2,752,339 patent for his “Preparation of Cortisone,” for which he was elected into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
By removing sterols from soybean oil, Julian also created synthetic versions of the female and male hormones progesterone and testosterone. Over the course of his career, Julian was awarded numerous patents that were connected to his scientific work.
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Later Years and Death
Julian left Glidden in 1954 and started his own business, Julian Laboratories, Inc., in the same year. He managed the business until 1961, when he sold it and made a million dollars. Julian established Julian Associates and the Julian Research Institute in 1964, running them for the remainder of his life. In Waukegan, Illinois, on April 19, 1975, Julian passed away.
Among Julian’s many accolades are 19 honorary doctorates and 1973 election to the National Academy of Sciences. He was the first person to receive the McNaughton Medal for Public Service from DePauw. The Julian commemorative stamp from the Black Heritage Commemorative Stamp series was released by the U.S. Postal Service in 1993. First Street in Greencastle was renamed Percy Julian Drive in 1999.
His bust and a plaque at the DePauw University campus in Indiana were dedicated as a National Historic Chemical Landmark on April 23, 1999. The inscription on the plaque reads as it summarizes his life and accomplishments:
“In 1935, in Minshall Laboratory, DePauw alumnus Percy L. Julian (1899-1975) first synthesized the drug physostigmine, previously only available from its natural source, the Calabar bean. His pioneering research led to the process that made physostigmine readily available for the treatment of glaucoma. It was the first of Julian’s lifetime of achievements in the chemical synthesis of commercially important natural products.”
Julian’s first significant piece of research involved creating physostigmine. He and his research partner Pikl mastered the synthesis of physostigmine in 1933, which allowed for its widespread manufacturing and made treating glaucoma accessible to all.
Julian conducted in-depth studies on soya beans when he was at Glidden and created a variety of inventive goods with it.
Lecithin was his first creation, and it was a product. It was also used to smooth down chocolate and preserve food. During this time, Aer-o-foam, a fire retardant that the US Navy employed extensively during World War II, was also created.
Additionally, he developed a technique for mass generating stigmasterol, an essential steroid that contains sex hormones like progesterone. Better prenatal care and miscarriage avoidance are the results of his idea.
Julian also discovered how to make cortisone in large quantities from stigmasterol. Arthritis and irritation were treated with cortisone. However, before his discovery, cortisone was derived from cow bile and was prohibitively expensive. After his creation, the cost was significantly lowered and was within most people’s reach.
Awards & Achievements
- The Spingarn Medal was given to Percy Lavon Julian by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1947. (NAACP). The same year, he received an honorary doctorate from DePauw University.
- He was recognised as “Chicagoan of the Year” in 1950 by the Chicago Chamber of Commerce.
Julian received the American Institute of Chemists’ Chemical Pioneer Award in 1968.
- In appreciation of his contributions to the field of chemistry, Julian was chosen in 1973 to join the National Academy of Sciences. He was the second scientist of African descent to be admitted to this esteemed organization.