Awesome Men In History: Percy Julian
Considering the amount of poets, artists, and weirdo musicians we’ve covered so far, it’s about time we featured a scientist here at Awesome Men Throughout History. Science has played a major role in the evolution of humans as a species, after all, and I’d say things like penicillin and the refrigeration of food have worked out pretty well for us so far.
What’s interesting about science, though, is that a lot of its more popular figures have been plagiarists and sociopaths (looking at you, Hubble), while some of the coolest and most useful researchers are flagging in the winds of obscurity. I’ll do my part to make things right by letting TSB readers in on one of science’s best-kept secrets: Percy Lavon Julian.
Percy was a black research chemist back when the very idea of such a thing was considered ridiculous. He was one of the first black men to receive a doctorate in chemistry, and the first black chemist to be inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. He pioneered the industrial process of synthesizing human hormones from plant sterols, which sounds boring and random until you realize that birth control, among other things, would be impossible without it. All the pregnancy-risk-reduced bareback sex you’ve ever had or will have, in other words, is thanks to Percy Lavon Julian.
And not only did Julian make sex a lot less stressful for millions of people around the world, he went through hell and back to do so. Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1889, and grew up during Jim Crow; he remembered seeing a lynched man hanging from a tree in the woods near his house as a child. Stuff like that probably factored into his parents’ desire for their children to receive higher education far, far away from the South, so the family moved to Indiana, where Julian (and later, his siblings) attended DuPauw University in Greencastle.
Not that racism was unheard of there, of course. Julian was barred from campus dormitories, and a lot of the restaurants and boarding houses in town, including the one he lived in, wouldn’t serve him. He eventually got a job firing the furnace in a frathouse in exchange for a room in the attic (which conjures up all sorts of unsanitary Animal House imagery for me) and the privilege of eating without incident.
After graduating, he got an Austin Fellowship in Chemistry and went to Harvard, who promptly withdrew his teaching assistantship because they didn’t want a black man teaching their precious white legacies. Luckily, he managed to finish his graduate work at the University of Vienna, thanks to a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship.
In Europe, Julian was socially active in a way that would never have been allowed in the States, and his letters to American colleague Jacob Shohan paint a vivid and impressive picture of his sex life. He was stirring up more than chemicals over there, if you catch my drift. His escapades eventually cost him a cushy professorship at Howard University, but he rebounded through work with DuPauw and the Glidden company.
By 1950, Julian’s scientific successes, especially his isolation of soy proteins, allowed him to move his wife and children to the unintegrated town of Oak Park, Illinois. Their home was fire-bombed on Thanksgiving Day of that year, and was attacked with dynamite the following year. Though they received community support after the attacks, Julian and his son had to keep watch over their property by sitting in a tree with a shotgun.
Can you imagine Albert Einstein in a similar position? If nothing else, Julian deserves our gratitude for spending his entire career putting up with racist bullcrap for the sake of progress. Seriously though, birth control was a solid. Thanks, buddy.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.