Percy Julian is the subject of a new documentary airing on American public television's premier science program, NOVA. The film is appropriately named Forgotten Genius.
The grandson of slaves, Julian discovered how to synthesize steroids (important chemical substances produced naturally by the human body) on an industrial scale. In 1939, when Julian made his discovery, steroids were already recognized as a treatment for certain diseases.
But as actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who portrays Julian in the documentary film, points out, the chemist's discovery made them more affordable. "Steroids were selling for $300 to $400 a gram in the early (19)30s," Santiago-Hudson says. "When Dr. Julian discovered how to get steroids from the soybean, it went down to 20 cents a gram, so now people who could not afford certain treatments could now afford them; so the regular working man was now finding relief from rheumatoid arthritis, glaucoma, and diseases like this."
Percy Julian's work with steroids is considered one of the 20 greatest achievements in American chemistry, according to documentary film producer Llew Smith. Still, he says, the chemist today is virtually unknown. "Julian received a number of honorary degrees and was appreciated in his lifetime, and even today, before I came to know about him, many chemists knew who he was," Smith says. "But (the general population,) we've pretty much forgotten who he was and what he accomplished in his time."
Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1899. In the segregated South where he grew up, schools for African Americans didn't go beyond the eighth grade. But Smith explains that Julian's parents wanted more for their son, so in 1916, they sent young Percy off to DePauw University in Indiana. "He had to take high school classes to catch up to the white kids in college. He was so far behind that he had to take remedial classes, but he wound up graduating at the head of his class when he did graduate," Smith says.
Julian wanted to get a PhD, but in 1920, no U.S. university would accept an African American. Ten years later, he had the opportunity to get his PhD in Vienna.
After returning from Austria, Julian got a research grant from DePauw University, where he had done his undergraduate studies. He gained worldwide recognition for synthesizing physostigmine, a drug used to treat glaucoma.
Forgotten Genius documents how Julian's search for a permanent position as a research scientist proved a discouraging experience, despite his fame, as he is told again and again: "We've never hired a negro research chemist before. We don't know how it would work out."
But in 1936, the Glidden Paint Company did hire Julian to head its new lab in Chicago. That's where Julian ended up doing much of his most important research, including devising an industrial system to convert soybean steroids into progesterone, testosterone, and cortisone.
Julian's research led to over 100 patents. When Glidden Paint Company decided to abandon steroid research, he quit and founded his own lab. Julian Laboratories ultimately made him a millionaire, but actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson says that was not his primary motivation: "Dr. Julian wanted to make peoples' lives better." Llew Smith remarks, "People who worked with [Julian] talk about this again and again."
But neither his financial success nor his contributions to mankind could protect Julian and his family from becoming the targets of racist violence. In 1951, the home he shared with his wife and two children in Oak Park, Illinois, was fire-bombed twice.
In the film, Forgotten Genius, Julian, as portrayed by Santiago-Hudson remarks that was a turning point for him. "The right of a people to live where they want to, without fear, is more important than my science. I was ready to give up my science and my life to bring a halt to this senseless terrorism."
And Julian did to some extent. In the 1960s, as Julian's son became more involved in the Civil Rights movement, filmmaker Llew Smith says, Julian himself began to spend more time out of the laboratory fighting for the cause.
"He gives speeches and in a number of speeches he says 'I would love to focus on chemistry, but there is so much going on in the country that involves my people and it is attacking my people and attacking me because of my race. I can't be in the laboratory, I have to get out of the laboratory and fight these other struggles.'"
But even in his lab, Julian was serving the civil rights cause. He hired the best chemists he could find, giving jobs to many who would not have been hired elsewhere because of their race or gender.
Percy Julian died of cancer in 1975, at the age of 76. The advancements he made in chemistry continue to serve humankind, providing relief to sufferers of arthritis and glaucoma. Producer Llew Smith and actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson hope their documentary will bring Percy Julian the recognition he deserves, and ensure that this "forgotten genius" is forgotten no more.