« One day I’ll be a chemist ». This sentence said a lot about the determination of Percy Lavon Julian, back then by looking at white students in a laboratory, from a fence he had climbed.
The future African-American scientist was born in 1898 in the segregated state of Alabama in the United States. His two brothers became Doctors and all his three sisters obtained at least a Master’s degree. Percy Julian was destined by his father to follow his brothers’ footsteps, but he chose chemistry instead.
After brilliant studies, he taught chemistry at DeFisk University in Tennessee, an institution for Blacks. He received a scholarship from Harvard University and finished first in his field in the mythical institution. But because of racism, the teacher’s place reserved for him was denied. He taught in black universities and finally completed his training with a PhD in Austria.
Back in the United States, he developed physostigmine with a colleague from Austria, Dr. Josef Pikl. This synthetic compound revolutionized the treatment of glaucoma, a disabling disease of the eye. Percy Julian was acclaimed around the world, but the authorities blocked him on the road of a promotion, still due to his race. He finally abandoned the academic world and took high responsibilities at Glidden Company. He developed a flame retardant foam that will be used during the Second World War.
Percy Julian once again created sensation by synthetically producing progesterone, a natural hormone that prevents abortions. Its creation had a major impact in the care of the pregnant woman. He also synthesized testosterone and cortisone.
This last natural hormone is very effective in the treatment of rheumatism. Before the work of Percy Julian, it was overpriced. The African-American chemist has made it affordable for all. This democratization of corticosteroids had a decisive impact in the prognosis of conditions such as asthma, rheumatism and renal diseases.
Dr. Percy Julian and his family moved into a wealthy neighborhood of Chicago but racists set fire to his house and a bomb exploded near the window of his children. His racist neighbors, however, depended on the treatments he had developed.
Percy Julian was deeply involved in the civil rights movement, whether in the black lobby NAACP or in organizations affiliated with Martin Luther King Jr. His contribution to medicine remains gigantic, several university faculties in the US bear his name, and a stamp with his effigy is in circulation.
By : Lisapo ya Kama
- Les savants et inventeurs noirs, Yves Antoine, pages 33 to 36