Google Features Percy Julian, Legendary African-American Chemist

What a fantastic surprise this morning on the 115th anniversary of Percy Julian’s birth:

 

Screenshot of Google search page on 11 April 2014 features chemist, Percy Julian. Credit: Google

Screenshot of Google Doodle on 11 April 2014 features chemist, Percy Julian. (Credit: Google)

 

I’m beside myself with joy to see this pioneering chemist be recognized by the most prominent search engine in the world.

I don’t know where to begin about Julian but I’m sure that many of you have seen The Forgotten Genius, the PBS-produced NOVA life story of the chemist. Julian suffered many indignities in his training, from being denied dormitory residence while earning his B.S. at DePauw University to progression to racial issues limiting him to a M.S. at Harvard. He later completed his Ph.D. work at the University of Vienna in 1931.

Julian is probably best known for using natural products as a template for making drugs. His first major feat, the synthesis of physostigmine, a cholinesterase inhibitor from the Calabar bean used to treat glaucoma has been recognized by ACS as a National Historic Chemical Landmark at DePauw University. This 11-step synthesis from phenacetin, the active metabolite of acetaminophen, was completed with his Vienna colleague, Josef Pikl, and students in the laboratory.

Julian synthesized cortisone, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone from the Calabar bean compound, stigmasterol. Later, at Glidden Paint Company, a happy accident led Julian to find that soybean extract (soya oil) also contained the 17-member sterol nucleus, a much more accessible source. At this time, we had absolutely no treatments for rheumatoid arthritis. But cortisone, then made by Merck in a laborious 36-step synthesis, was found in 1949 to transform the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. However, Merck’s starting material was deoxycholic acid from bovine bile. Julian’s synthetic work beginning with sigmasterol.

I could go on. So I strongly suggest that readers consult the ACS National Historic Chemical Landmark dedication and, please, watch The Forgotten Genius. You should buy the DVD, as I did for teaching in my pharmacology classes, but you can watch it in segments at the PBS NOVA page.

Author: David Kroll

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2 Comments

  1. I agree completely, and would also like to draw attention to the work of Dr. James Shoffner. His tireless efforts were in great measure responsible for bringing Percy Julian’s story to NOVA, and thence to the world.. Dr. Shoffner organized symposia, provided contacts, and obtained support for celebration from ACS. We all thank him.

  2. I agree with Anne O’Brien. Jim Shoffner’s tireless efforts in helping to produce “Forgotton Genius” have to be noted and applauded. I love “Forgotton Genius”. I purchased a copy of it and my students and I use it each year during Black History Month.
    We have a big screen showing complete with popcorn and drinks for the whole university.