Percy Julian (1899–1975) participated actively in the synthesis of natural steroids, including cholesterol, bile acids, sex hormones, and the cortical hormones of the adrenal glands, and their large-scale production when their medicinal potential became obvious.
Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1899—the son of a railway mail clerk and the grandson of slaves. In an era when African Americans faced prejudice in virtually all aspects of life—not least in the scientific world—he succeeded against the odds. He majored in chemistry at DePauw University, earning his way by digging ditches and by waiting on tables in a fraternity house. After graduation he worked at Fisk University for two years as a chemistry instructor. He then completed a master's degree in organic chemistry at Harvard University and returned to teaching at West Virginia State College. In 1929 Julian began his studies at the University of Vienna, focusing on the chemistry of medicinal plants, and earned his doctorate in 1931. Julian took a position at Howard University and two years later moved to his alma mater, DePauw. There he accomplished the first total synthesis of the active principle of the Calabar bean—an alkaloid, physostigmine, used in the treatment of glaucoma.
Meanwhile German chemists were showing that the steroid stigmasterol—which Julian had obtained as a by-product of the physostigmine synthesis but was also obtainable from soybeans—could be used in the preparation of certain sex hormones. In 1936, in pursuit of this lead, Julian wrote to the Glidden Company in Chicago, requesting some sample soybean oil. Based on his reputation, Julian was promptly made Director of Research of the Glidden Soya Products Division, where he remained until 1953, when he left to found his own company, Julian Laboratories.
Julian, and his contemporary Djerassi were both involved in the exciting competition of the late 1940s and early 1950s to synthesize the hormone cortisone inexpensively. In 1949 Julian published a paper on a new synthesis for Reichstein's Substance S, which is also present in the adrenal cortex and differs from cortisone in lacking only one oxygen atom in a particular molecular position. Hydrocortisone is still widely produced from this substance.
Julian placed a high priority on their contributions to society as scientists and citizens. Julian was particularly active in groups seeking to advance conditions for African Americans, helping to found the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of Chicago as well as serving on the boards of several other organizations and universities. He was always attempting to build bridges between diverse groups of people.