Today, a boy, facing a bleak future, teaches us all
a lesson. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
What were the prospects for
a smart black kid, grandson of a slave, born in
Montgomery, Alabama, in 1899? What hope could he
hold? Those were Percy Julian's circumstances.
Julian went to the so-called State Normal School
for Negroes in Montgomery. It was a second-rate
high school -- yet still available to very few.
From there he gained entry to DePauw University in
Indiana as a remedial freshman. He studied
chemistry, and he finished as class valedictorian
in 1920. By hook and by crook he managed to earn a
master's degree at Harvard and a Ph.D. degree in
Percy Julian went back to DePauw to do basic work
on drug synthesis. He established his reputation by
synthesizing the drug used to treat glaucoma. But a
black man could not yet be promoted to the
professorial ranks -- even in the North.
So Julian became a research director at the Glidden
paint and varnish company. There he synthesized
soybean products. He created sizing for paper and
textiles. He used soya protein to make
He also synthesized hormones -- progesterone and
testosterone -- from soybean oil. He patented an
early liquid crystal.
Percy Julian is most famous for having synthesized
cortisone. When he began, we had to make cortisone
from the bile of oxen. It cost hundreds of dollars
per drop. Julian located a wild sweet potato in
Guatemala. He figured out how to synthesize
cortisone from yams, for pennies a gram.
In 1954 he created his own pharmaceutical company,
which he eventually sold for millions of dollars.
In the end, he held over a hundred patents. And
those patents represented palpable improvements in
the quality of our lives. In the end, the chemical
and academic communities heaped honors on Julian.
Those honors included 19 honorary doctorate
degrees. At least nine universities named schools
and buildings after him. One was DePauw, which once
could not promote him into the professorial ranks.
Julian died in 1975. He'd lived most of his life in
a world that simply didn't want to see his race. So
we return to our question. What were Julian's
prospects in 1899?
The answer, of course, is that he created his own
prospects. He walked around barriers and he gave us
far more than we gave him.
We all see our lives proscribed by circumstance and
by our own limitations. We miss the point if we
take Percy Julian's story as one to be used only by
black Americans. His transcendence is something for
us all to seek out -- in our own lives.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds