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 Dr. Percy Julian was a pioneering chemist and scientist who developed a process that aided in the production of medicine from plants by way of chemical synthesis. Of Dr. Julian’s many achievements, chief among them is becoming the first African-American scientist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences and just the second overall African-American of any field to do so.

Percy Lavon Julian was born April 11, 1899 in Montgomery, Ala., the first child of six born to James Sumner and Elizabeth Lena Julian. Julian’s parents were college graduates from the school that became Alabama State University. The grandson of a slave, Julian endured the racist realities of the Jim Crow South yet strove to use education as a means to escape the despair around him.

He enrolled in DePauw University in Indiana as the valedictorian in 1920 and joined the honor society Phi Betta Kappa. Despite the achievement, Julian knew chances of him obtaining a doctorate in Chemistry would prove difficult. Instead, Julian humbled himself to work as a chemistry instructor at Fisk University.

In 1923, he received a fellowship to attend Harvard University in order to earn his M.S. degree, but when Harvard found out Julian was Black, they withdrew the fellowship. In 1929, while working as a professor at Howard University, Julian won the Rockefeller Foundation fellowship going on to finish his graduate studies at the University of Vienna where he earned his P.h.D. in 1931.

Dr. Julian returned to DePauw but even with the doctorate the university denied him the right to full professorship. In 1935, however, Dr. Julian became an internationally acclaimed chemist after synthesizing physostigmine from the calabar bean to create a drug treatment for glaucoma.Today, physostigmine is used to treat Alzheimer’s disease and other issues.

Dr. Julian’s race barred him from prominence in the world of academia, so he left that sector to work in labs. Working for the Gidden Company as its lab chief, he developed Aero-Foam, a product that was used to put out fires and was part of the supplies used in the Second World War. In 1954, Julian opened his own laboratory, becoming one of the nation’s first Black millionaries when he sold it in 1961. He later went on to found and run the Julian Research Institute up until his death on April 19, 1975.

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