Percy Julian

Percy Julian - blackinventor.comPercy Julian was born on April 11, 1899 in Birmingham, Alabama, one of six children. His father, a railroad mail clerk, and his mother, a school teacher stressed education to their children. This emphasis would ultimately prove successful as two sons went on to become physicians and three daughters would receive Masters degrees, but it was son Percy who would become the most successful of the children.

[ad name=”336×280″]Percy attended elementary school in Birmingham and moved on to Montgomery, Alabama where he attended high school at the State Normal School for Negroes. Upon graduation in 1916, Julian applied to and was accepted into DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. At DePauw, he began as a probationary student, having to take higher level high school classes along with his freshman and sophomore course load. He proved himself well, going on to be named a member of the Sigma Xi honorary society as well as a Phi Beta Kappa member. Finally, upon graduation from DePauw in 1920, he was selected as the class valedictorian. Though at the top of his class, he was discouraged from seeking admission into a graduate school because of potential racial sentiment on the part of future coworkers and employers. Instead, he took the advice of an advisor and took a position as a chemistry teacher at Fisk University, a Black college in Nashville, Tennessee.

After two years at Fisk, Julian was awarded the Austin Fellowship in Chemistry and moved to the distinguished Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Finally given an opportunity at graduate level work, Julian excelled. He achieved straight A’s, finishing at the top of his class and receiving a Masters Degree in 1923. Even with this success, Julian was unable to obtain a position as a teaching assistant at any major universities because of the perception that White students would refuse to learn under a Black instructor. Thus, he moved on to a teaching position at West Virginia State College for Negroes, though he would not find happiness in this situation. He left West Virginia and served as an associate professor of chemistry at Howard University in Washington, D.C. for two years.

In 1929, Julian qualified for and received a Fellowship from the General Education Board and traveled to Vienna, Austria in pursuit of a Ph.D. degree. While in Vienna, Julian developed a fascination with the soybean and its interesting properties and capabilities. Focusing on organic chemistry, Julian received his Ph.D. in 1931 and returned to the United States and to Howard University, as the head of the school’s chemistry department. He soon left Howard and moved back to DePauw where he was appointed a teacher in organic chemistry. At DePauw, he worked with an associate of his from Vienna, Dr. Josef Pikl, on the synthesis of physostigmine, a drug which was used as a treatment for glaucoma. After much work and adversity, Julian was successful and became internationally hailed for his achievement. At this point the Dean of the University sought to appoint Julian to the position as Chair of the chemistry department but was talked out of it by others in the department, again because of concerns over reaction to his race.

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In late 1935, Percy Julian decided to leave the world of academics and entered the corporate world by accepting a position with the Glidden Company as chief chemist and the Director of the Soya Product Division. This was a significant development as he was the first Black scientist hired for such a position and would pave the way for other Blacks in the future. The Glidden Company was a leading manufacturer of paint and varnish and was counting on Julian to develop compounds from soy-based products which could be used to make paints and other products. Julian did not disappoint, coming up with products such as aero-foam which worked as a flame retardant and was used by the United States Navy and saved the lives of countless sailors during World War II.

On December 24, 1935, Percy married Anna Johnson and the couple settled into their comfortable life in Chicago. Percy continued his success as he next developed a way to inexpensively develop male and female hormones from soy beans. These hormones would help to prevent miscarriages in pregnant women and would be used to fight cancer and other ailments. He next set out to provide a synthetic version of cortisone, a product which greatly relieved the pain of suffered by sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis. The real cortisone was extremely expensive and only rich people could afford it. With Julians discovery of the soy-based substitute, millions of sufferers around the world found relief at a reasonable price. So significant was his work that in 1950 the City of Chicago named him Chicagoan of the Year. While the honor should have signaled Julian’s acceptance by his white counterparts in his field and his community, but when he soon after purchased a home for his family in nearby Oak Park, the home was set afire by an arsonist on Thanksgiving day 1950. A year later, dynamite was thrown from a passing car and exploded outside the bedroom window of Percy’s children. Despite the fact that many residents of the town relied upon his methods to relieve their pains of and provide for their safety, some still could not stand to have him as their neighbor simply because he was Black.

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In 1954, Julian left the Glidden Company to establish Julian Laboratories which specialized in producing his synthetic cortisone. When he discovered that wild yams in Mexico were even more effective than Soya beans for some of his products, he opened the Laboratorios Julian de Mexico in Mexico City, Mexico which cultivated the yams and shipped them to Oak Park for refinement. In 1961 he sold the Oak Park plant to Smith, Kline and French, a giant pharmaceutical company and received a sum of 2.3 million dollars, a staggering amount for a Black man at that time.

After years of struggling for respect in his field and his community, Julian finally was recognized as a genius and a pioneer. He received countless award and honors including the prestigious Spingarn Medal from the NAACP and was asked to serve on numerous commissions and advisory boards.

Percy Julian died of liver cancer in 1975 and is known worldwide as a trailblazer, both in the world of chemistry and as an advocate for the plight of Black scientists.

Forgotten Genius Percy Lavon Julian

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George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver - blackinventor.comGeorge Washington Carver was born in 1860 in Diamond Grove, Missouri and despite early difficulties would rise to become one of the most celebrated and respected scientists in United States history. His important discoveries and methods enabled farmers through the south and midwest to become profitable and prosperous.

George was born the sickly child of two slaves and would remain frail for most of his childhood. One night a band of raiders attacked his family and stole George and his mother. Days later, George was found unharmed by neighbors and was traded back to his owners in exchange for a racehorse. Because of his frailty, George was not suited for work in the fields but he did possess a great interest in plants and was very eager to learn more about them.

[ad name=”336×280″]His master sent him to Neosho, Missouri for an early education and graduated from Minneapolis High School in Kansas. He eventually mailed an application to Highland University in Kansas and was not only accepted but also offered a scholarship. Happily, George traveled to the school to accept the scholarship but upon meeting George, the University president asked “why didn’t you tell me you were a Negro?” and promptly withdrew the scholarship and the acceptance.

In 1887 Carver was accepted into Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa where he became well respected for his artistic talent (in later days his art would be included in the spectacular World’s Columbian Exposition Art Exhibit.) Carver’s interests, however, lay more in science and he transferred from Simpson to Iowa Agricultural College (which is now known as Iowa State University.) He distinguished himself so much that upon graduation he was offered a position on the school’s faculty, the first Black accorded the honor. Carver was allowed great freedom in working in agriculture and botany in the University’s greenhouses. In 1895, Carver co-authored a series of papers on the prevention and cures for fungus diseases affecting cherry plants.

In 1896 he received his master’s degree in agriculture and in 1897 discovered two funguses that would be named after him. At this point, the most pivotal moment of his life arose – he was summoned by Booker T. Washington to teach at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. He was appointed director of agriculture and quickly set out to completely correct its wretched state. He was given a 20 acre shabby piece of land and along with his students planted peas on it. Like all legumes, the peas had nitrogen-fixing bacteria on their roots which took nitrogen from the air and converted it into nitrates which then worked to fertilize the soil. The depleted soil quickly became rich and fertile, so much so that he was able to grow 500 pounds of cotton on each acre of land he worked on.

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Carver soon instructed nearby farmers on his methods of improving the soil and taught them how to rotate their crops to promote a better quality of soil. Most of the staple crops of the south (tobacco and cotton) stole nutrients from the soil, but these nutrients could be returned to the soil by planting legumes. Thus, in order to improve the soil, Carver instructed the farmers to plant peanuts, which could be harvested easily and fed to livestock. The farmers were ecstatic with the tremendous quality of cotton and tobacco they grew later but quickly grew angry because the amount of peanuts they harvested was too plentiful and began to rot in overflowing warehouses. Within a week, Carver had experimented with and devised dozens of uses for the peanut, including milk and cheese. In later years he would produce more than 300 products that could be developed from the lowly peanut, including ink, facial cream, shampoo and soap.

Suddenly, the same farmers who cursed him now found that a new industry had sprung up that could use their surplus peanuts. Next, Carver looked at ways of utilizing the sweet potato and was able to develop more than 115 products from it including flour, starch and synthetic rubber (the United States Army utilized many of his products during World War I.)

[ad name=”300×250″]Carver did not stop with these discoveries. From the inexpensive pecan he developed more than 75 products, from discarded corn stalks dozens of uses and from common clays he created dyes and paints. Suddenly Carver’s fame grew and grew until he was invited to speak before the United States Congress and was consulted by titans of industry and invention. Henry Ford, head of Ford Motor Company invited Carver to his Dearborn, Michigan plant where the two devised a way to use goldenrod, a plant weed, to create synthetic rubber. Thomas Edison, the great inventor was so enthusiastic about that he asked Carver to move to Orange Grove, New Jersey to work at the Edison Laboratories at an annual salary of $100,000 per year and state of the art facilities. He declined the generous offer, wanting to continue on at Tuskegee.

George Washington Carver - blackinventor.comHe was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce of Britain in 1916, the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1923, and in 1939 was awarded the Theodore Roosevelt Medal for “distinguished research in agricultural chemistry.” He was appointed to various boards and committees by the United States Department of Agriculture and was named Man of the Year in 1940 by the International Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists and Technicians. Finally, he received honorary Doctor of Science degrees from Simpson College as well as the University of Rochester.


George Washington Carver – Bio



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