As a chemist, Dr. Percy Julian did amazing things. Countless people benefited from his work, from patients with rheumatoid arthritis to servicemen whose lives were saved during World War II. But Julian—the grandson of slaves—had to confront numerous challenges in order to have a career in chemistry. His determination and his desire to help others are just as amazing as his achievements in chemistry.
Overcame doubts to become a chemist
Very few people in Julian’s life encouraged him to follow his dream of becoming a chemist. He was DePauw University’s valedictorian in 1920, but at the time no African-American student, no matter how gifted, was expected to pursue higher education. One school basically told Julian’s professor: “Discourage your bright colored lad. We couldn’t get him a job when he’s done, and it’ll only mean frustration. Why don’t you find him a teaching job in a Negro college in the South? He doesn’t need a Ph.D. for that.”
Julian’s father had always supported his son’s education, but even he questioned if chemistry was the right career path. As Julian’s younger brother, Emerson, later explained, “Dad never wanted us to work for anyone and chemistry was a field which, back in those days, was pretty much barred to our people as a rule—except for teaching positions at the all-black schools. He figured that the wisest thing for Percy to do was prepare himself for medicine and set up practice. It was a means of independence.”
A gifted student, Percy Julian graduated from DePauw University in 1920. (Photo: DePauw University)
For a while it looked like his father had accurately assessed Julian’s situation, as his son ended up teaching at Fisk University. But then Julian found his way to Harvard, where he got his master’s in chemistry in 1923. Unfortunately, Julian encountered racist resistance there as well; denied a teaching assistantship, he still couldn’t pursue his Ph.D.
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