Dr Percy Julian – Black History Under A Microscope

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To celebrate Black History Month, we take a look at some inspirational figures who have excelled in their field and produced leading research around the world which we still rely on today!

If you’ve ever needed medication, chances are that Dr Percy Julian made it possible. Just two generations away from slavery, Julian is regarded as one of the most influential chemists in history – he challenged systematic racism at every step of his career in order to synthesise accessible medicines.

Working and taking evening classes concurrent with his undergraduate studies, Julian graduated university not only as Valedictorian, but also achieved Phi Betta Kappa Honours. 

Despite multiple set-backs in obtaining his doctorate due to racial prejudices, he contributed an immense amount to medicinal chemistry in his post-doctorate research. He discovered how to synthesise drugs such as physostigmine, progesterone, cortisone, and hydrocortisone on an industrial scale during his career, which were used in the treatment of conditions such as glaucoma and rheumatic arthritis.

His synthesis of hydrocortisone is still used, and his synthetic methods drastically reduced the cost of these medicines, making them more accessible to the public.

Despite intense institutional racism, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and his physostigmine synthesis was dubbed “one of the top 25 achievements in the history of American chemistry” by the American Chemical Society. 

He also received 12 honorary degrees, held more than 130 chemical patents, and was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. 

Regardless of all of the obstacles in his way, Julian became one of the most successful chemists in history, and his contribution to science saved thousands of lives, and improved many thousands more. 

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