He was the first to synthesize the natural product physostigmine, and a pioneer in the industrial large-scale chemical synthesis of the human hormones, steroids, progesterone, and testosterone, from plant sterols such as stigmasterol and sitosterol. His work would lay the foundation for the steroid drug industry's production of cortisone, other corticosteroids, and birth control pills.
He later started his own company to synthesize steroid intermediates from the Mexican wild yam. His work helped greatly reduce the cost of steroid intermediates to large multinational pharmaceutical companies, helping to significantly expand the use of several important drugs.
During his lifetime he received more than 130 chemical patents. Julian was one of the first African-Americans to receive a doctorate in chemistry. He was the first African-American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, and the second African-American scientist inducted from any field.
Julian attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. The college accepted few African-American students. The segregated nature of the town forced social humiliations. Julian was not allowed to live in the college dormitories and first stayed in an off-campus boarding home, which refused to serve him meals. It took him days before Julian found an establishment where he could eat. He worked firing the furnace, as a waiter, and doing other odd jobs in a fraternity house. In return, he was allowed to sleep in the attic and eat at the house. Julian graduated from DePauw in 1920 Phi Beta Kappa and valedictorian. By 1930 Julian's father had moved the entire family to Greencastle, Indiana so that all his children could attend college at DePauw. The father was still working as a railroad postal clerk.
Julian wanted to obtain his doctorate in chemistry, but learned it would be difficult for an African-American. After graduating from DePauw, Julian became a chemistry instructor at Fisk University. He then received an Austin Fellowship in Chemistry and went to Harvard University in 1923 for his M.S. Worried that white students would resent being taught by an African-American, Harvard withdrew Julian's teaching assistantship. He was unable to complete his Ph.D. at Harvard.
In 1929, while an instructor at Howard University, Julian received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to continue his graduate work at the University of Vienna, where he earned his PhD in 1931. He studied under Ernst Späth and was considered an impressive student. In Europe, he found freedom from the racial prejudices that had nearly stifled him in the States. He freely participated in intellectual social gatherings, went to the opera and found greater acceptance among his peers.Julian was one of the first African-Americans to receive a PhD in chemistry, after St. Elmo Brady and Edward M. A. Chandler. During Julian's lifetime he earned more than 138 chemical patents for his work. He was the first African-American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, and the second African-American scientist inducted from any field.
After returning from Vienna, Julian taught at Howard University for one year, where he met his future wife, Anna Roselle Johnson (PhD in Sociology, 1937, University of Pennsylvania). They married on December 24, 1935 and had two children: Percy Lavon Julian, Jr. (August 31, 1940 – February 24, 2008), who became a prestigious civil rights lawyer in Madison, Wisconsin; and Faith Roselle Julian (1944– ), who still resides in their Oak Park home and often makes moving speeches about her father and his contributions to science.
At Howard, Julian got involved in university politics and set off an embarrassing chain of events. After he goaded, at the University President's request, a white chemist named Jacob Shohan into resigning, Shohan retaliated by releasing to the local African-American newspaper the letters Julian had written to him from Vienna. The letters contained accounts of Julian's sex life, and criticism of individual Howard faculty members. Julian's laboratory assistant, Robert Thompson, also charged he had found his wife and Julian together in a sexual tryst. When Thompson was fired for filing a lawsuit against the University, he also gave the paper racy letters which Julian had written to him from Vienna. Through the summer of 1932, the Baltimore Afro-American published all of Julian's letters. Eventually, the scandal, and its accompanying pressure, forced Julian to resign. He lost his position, and everything he had worked for.
After the scandal, Julian's mentor, William Blanchard, threw him a much-needed lifeline at the lowest point in Julian's career. Blanchard offered Julian a position to teach organic chemistry at DePauw University in 1932. Julian helped Josef Pikl, a fellow student at the University of Vienna, to come to the United States to work with him at DePauw. In 1935 Julian and Pikl completed the total synthesis of physostigmine, and confirmed the structural formula assigned to it. Robert Robinson of Oxford University in the U.K. was the first to publish a synthesis of physostigmine, but Julian noticed that the melting point of Robinson's end product was wrong, indicating that he had not, in fact, created it. When Julian completed his synthesis, the melting point matched the correct one for natural physostigmine from the calabar bean.
Julian also extracted stigmasterol, which took its name from Physostigma venenosum, the west African calabar bean that he hoped could serve as raw material for synthesis of human steroidal hormones. At about this time in 1934, Butenandt, and Fernholz, in Germany, had shown that stigmasterol, isolated from soybean oil, could be converted to progesterone by synthetic organic chemistry.
Julian supervised the assembly of the plant at Glidden when he arrived in 1936. He then designed and supervised construction of the world's first plant for the production of industrial-grade, isolated soy protein from oil-free soybean meal. Isolated soy protein could replace the more expensive milk casein in industrial applications such as coating and sizing of paper, glue for making Douglas fir plywood, and in the manufacture of water-based paints.
At the start of World War II Glidden sent a sample of Julian's isolated soy protein to National Foam System Inc. (today a unit of Kidde Fire Fighting) of Philadelphia, PA which used it to develop Aer-O-Foam, the U.S. Navy's beloved fire-fighting "bean soup"; and while not exactly the Julian's brainchild, was given the meticulous care in the preparation of the soy protein that made the fire fighting foam possible. When a hydrolyzate of isolated soy protein was fed into a water stream, the mixture was converted into a foam by means of an aerating nozzle. The soy protein foam was used to smother oil and gasoline fires aboard ships and was particularly useful on aircraft carriers. It saved the lives of thousands of sailors. Citing this, in 1947 the NAACP awarded him the Spingarn Medal, its highest honor
In 1940 Julian was able to produce 100 lb of mixed soy sterols daily, which had a value of $10,000, in sex hormones. Julian was soon ozonizing 100 pounds daily of mixed sterol dibromides. The result was the female hormone progesterone which was put on the U.S. market in bulk for the first time.The soy stigmasterol was easily converted into commercial quantities of the female hormone, progesterone, and the first pound of progesterone he made, valued at $63,500 was shipped to the buyer in an armored car. Production of other sex hormones soon followed.
His work made possible the production of these hormones on a larger (kilogram) industrial scale, with the potential of reducing the cost of treating hormonal deficiencies. Julian and his co-workers obtained patents for Glidden on key processes for the preparation of progesterone and testosterone from soybean plant sterols. Product patents held by a former cartel of European pharmaceutical companies prevented a significant reduction in wholesale and retail prices for clinical use of these hormones in the 1940s
On April 13, 1949, rheumatologist Philip Hench at the Mayo Clinic announced the dramatic effectiveness of cortisone in treating rheumatoid arthritis. The cortisone was produced by Merck at great expense using a complex 36-step synthesis developed by chemist Lewis Sarett. It started with deoxycholic acid from cattle bile acids. On September 30, 1949, Julian announced an improvement in the process of producing cortisone. This eliminated the need to use osmium tetroxide, which was a rare and expensive chemical. By 1950, Glidden could begin producing closely related compounds which may have partial cortisone activity. Julian also announced the synthesis, starting with the cheap and readily available pregnenolone synthesized from the soybean oil sterol, stigmasterol of the steroid cortexolone (also known as Reichstein's Substance S), a molecule that differed from cortisone by a single missing oxygen atom; and possibly 17α-hydroxyprogesterone and pregnenetriolone, which he hoped might also be effective in treating rheumatoid arthritis, but unfortunately they were not.
On April 5, 1952, biochemist Durey Peterson and microbiologist Herbert Murray at Upjohn published the first report of a fermentation process for the microbial 11α-oxygenation of steroids in a single step (by common molds of the order Mucorales). Their fermentation process could produce 11α-hydroxyprogesterone or 11α-hydroxycortisone from progesterone or Compound S, respectively, which could then by further chemical steps be converted to cortisone or 11β-hydroxycortisone (cortisol).
After two years, Glidden abandoned production of cortisone to concentrate on Substance S. Julian developed an excellent multistep process for conversion of pregnenolone, available in abundance from soybean oil sterols to cortexolone. In 1952, Glidden, which had been producing progesterone and other steroids from soybean oil, shut down its own production and began importing them from Mexico through an arrangement with Diosynth (a small Mexican company founded in 1947 by Russell Marker after leaving Syntex). Glidden's cost of production of cortexolone was relatively high, so Upjohn decided to use progesterone, available in large quantity at low cost from Syntex, to produce cortisone and hydro cortisone.
In 1953, Glidden decided to leave the steroid business which had been relatively unprofitable over the years despite Julian's innovative work. On December 1, 1953, Julian left Glidden after 18 years, giving up a salary of nearly $50,000 a year, to found his own company, Julian Laboratories, Inc., taking over the small, concrete-block building of Suburban Chemical Company in Franklin Park, Illinois.
On December 2, 1953, Pfizer acquired exclusive licenses of Glidden patents for the synthesis of Substance S. Pfizer had developed a fermentation process for microbial 11β-oxygenation of steroids in a single step that could convert Substance S directly to 11β-hydrocortisone (cortisol), with Syntex undertaking large-scale production of cortexolone at very low cost.
In 1953, Julian founded his own research firm, Julian Laboratories, Inc. He brought many of his best chemists, including African-Americans and women, from Glidden to his own company. Julian won a contract to provide Upjohn with $2 million worth of progesterone. To compete against Syntex, he would have to use the same Mexican yam as his starting material. Julian used his own money and borrowed from friends to build a processing plant in Mexico, but he could not get a permit from the government to harvest the yams. Abraham Zlotnik, a former Jewish University of Vienna classmate whom Julian had helped escape from the Nazi European holocaust, led a search to find a new source of the yam in Guatemala for the company.
In July 1956, Julian and executives of two other American companies trying to enter the Mexican steroid intermediates market appeared before a U.S. Senate subcommittee. They testified that Syntex was using undue influence to monopolize access to the Mexican yam. The hearings resulted in Syntex signing a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department. While it did not admit to restraining trade, it promised not to do so in the future. Within five years, large American multinational pharmaceutical companies had acquired all six producers of steroid intermediates in Mexico. Four had been Mexican-owned.
Syntex reduced the cost of bulk progesterone as an intermediate more than 250-fold over twelve years, from $80 per gram in 1943 to $0.31 per gram in 1955. Competition from Upjohn and General Mills, who had together made very substantial improvements in the production of progesterone from stigmasterol, forced the price of Mexican progesterone down to less than $0.15 per gram in 1957. The price continued to fall, bottoming out at $0.08 per gram in 1968.
In 1958, Upjohn purchased 6,900 kg of progesterone from Syntex at $0.135 per gram, 6,201 kg of progesterone from Searle (who had acquired Pesa) at $0.143 per gram, 5,150 kg of progesterone from Julian Laboratories at $0.14 per gram, and 1,925 kg of progesterone from General Mills (who had acquired Protex) at $0.142 per gram.
Despite continually falling bulk prices of steroid intermediates, an oligopoly of large American multinational pharmaceutical companies kept the wholesale prices of corticosteroid drugs fixed and unchanged into the 1960s. Cortisone was fixed at $5.48 per gram from 1954, hydrocortisone fixed at $7.99 per gram from 1954, and prednisone fixed at $35.80 per gram from 1956.[ Merck and Roussel Uclaf concentrated on improving the production of corticosteroids from cattle bile acids. In 1960 Roussel produced almost one-third of the world's corticosteroids from bile acids.
One year Julian Laboratories chemists found a way to quadruple the yield on a product on which they were barely breaking even. Julian reduced their price for the product from $4,000 per kg down to $400 per kg. He sold the company in 1961, for $2.3 million doll The U.S. and Mexico facilities were purchased by Smith Kline and Julian's chemical plant in Guatemala was purchased by Upjohn.
In 1964, Julian founded Julian Associates and Julian Research Institute, which he managed for the rest of his life.
He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1973 in recognition of his scientific achievements. He became the second African-American to be inducted, after David Blackwell.
- In 1950, the Chicago Sun-Times named Percy Julian the Chicagoan of the Year.
- From 1975, the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers has presented the Percy L. Julian Award for Pure and Applied Research in Science and Engineering.
- In 1975, Percy L. Julian High School was opened on the south side of Chicago, Illinois as a Chicago Public High School.
- In 1985, Hawthorne School in Oak Park, Chicago, was renamed Percy Julian Middle School in his honor.
- In 1980, the science and mathematics building on the DePauw University campus was rededicated as the Percy L. Julian Mathematics and Science Center. In Greencastle, Indiana, where DePauw is located, a street was named after Julian.
- Illinois State University, where Julian served on the board of trustees, named a hall after him.
- In 1990, he was inducted into National Inventors Hall of Fame.
- In 1993 Julian was honored on a stamp issued by the United States Postal Service.
- In 1999, the American Chemical Society recognized Julian's synthesis of physostigmine as one of the top 25 achievements in the history of American chemistry.
- In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Percy Lavon Julian on his list of 100 Greatest African-Americans.
- In 2011, the Qualifying Exam preparation committee at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine was named for Percy Julian