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Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975)

Synthesis of Cortisone

Born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1899, Percy Lavon Julian, the grandson of a former slave, overcame a lifetime of discrimination in becoming an internationally acclaimed inventor of synthetic (man-made) medicines.

In spite of the minimal elementary education offered blacks in Alabama in the early 20th century, Julian enrolled in DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, and graduated in 1920 as class valedictorian. He then earned a Master's degree from Harvard (1923) and a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Vienna (1931). Returning to DePauw, Julian achieved his first breakthrough (1935), by creating physostigmine, a drug used to fight the potentially blinding eye disease glaucoma, from the calamar bean.

Later in life, Julian succeeded in synthesizing the male and female hormones testosterone and progesterone using sterols (solid alcohol compounds) extracted from soybean oil. But Julian is best known for his synthesis of cortisone, which is used to combat arthritis and other ailments of the limbs and joints. Until Julian's invention ("Preparation of Cortisone," patent #2,752,339), cortisone had to be extracted in natural form from the adrenal glands of oxen, and cost hundreds of dollars per drop; now, thanks to Julian, cortisone is readily available and costs only pennies per ounce.

Julian also invented outside the realm of medicine: during World War II, for example, he used soya proteins to create "AeroFoam," which extinguished gasoline- and oil-fires. But he will be best remembered as an inventor who used science to make essential medicines available and affordable---a tradition carried on today, for example, by Drs. Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen with their synthetic insulin. Moreover, Percy Julian's talent and determination made him a social, as well as a scientific, pioneer.

[Nov. 1996]

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