Kerrie Logan Hollihan
Teaching the Power of Wonder
Dr. Percy Julian was my neighbor in Oak Park, Illinois. I didn’t know the family who lived in the pretty home surrounded by an iron fence. But I heard the story, that the house was firebombed after they had bought it back in 1951. The Julian's were African-Americans coming to a white community.
Later I learned more. Dr. Julian was someone who didn’t take no for an answer. He grew up in the segregated South going to black-only schools. He hoped to study plant chemistry, but no southern college would accept a Negro, so he moved on. He went to DePauw University in Indiana and helped pay tuition by waiting tables at a white fraternity. He graduated at the top of his class in 1920 and wanted to get his doctorate at Harvard. Harvard refused, because that would mean Julian could teach whites—and that was not allowed.
Julian moved on. He went to Austria to earn his doctorate, and in that lab he studied chemicals in plants, especially beans. Many excellent medicines came from plant chemicals, but extracting them was often costly.
Upon returning to DePauw to teach, Julian was able to synthesize a plant chemical called physostigmine. His discovery produced inexpensive medicine for patients with glaucoma, an eye disease causing blindness. But the Great Depression fell across America, and DePauw ran out of money to fund his research.
Julian moved on. A Chicago paint company hired Julian as the first African-American to head a research lab in American industry. Julian had to travel for his work, and motels refused him a bed. One year he slept in his car 32 times, sometimes in the dead of winter.
Julian and his coworkers developed inks and paper coatings, dog food and a product called Aero-Foam to extinguish fires on aircraft carriers. His team discovered many uses for soybeans, at that time viewed as food for cows and pigs. Most important, they synthesized “Substance S” from soybeans. This synthetic drug replaced wildly-expensive cortisone. Julian’s landmark achievement offered relief to kids suffering from the painful and disfiguring disease rheumatoid arthritis.
Percy Julian worked all his days, always moving on to make life better. He built his own research business, volunteered at church, played the piano, and loved his family. He became a quiet hero to many, including me. I’m writing a book about Dr. Julian, which I hope you’ll see in print. For now, visit this site.
Kerrie Hollihan has already written about one great scientist, Sir Isaac Newton. You can read more about this book here.
Kerrie Hollihan is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
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