Editor’s note: For our 30th anniversary we’re reprinting some of our favorite past features. This one first ran on April 14, 1999.
If you know of any disheartened young people,” wrote Tribune columnist and TV commentator Vernon Jarrett in April 1975, “regardless of race, who feel that this callous world is so much against them that they refuse to give their talents a chance to shine, tell them the story of Percy Julian.”
Jarrett was on hand Sunday evening at the Mar Lac House in Oak Park, along with family, friends, colleagues and village officials, to help tell the tale of one of the more remarkable success stories of this century as Oak Park celebrated the centennial of Julian’s birth.
Many of his successes involved pioneering work in organic chemistry, and most don’t know the half of it. Dr. Arnold Hirsch, chief chemist at Julian Laboratories during the latter stages of Julian’s life, listed the astonishing array of products that the scientist’s research made possible. In addition to making possible mass production of cortisone for arthritis sufferers and physostigmine to treat glaucoma–which at least some have heard about–his work with soy beans led to the first latex paint (Glidden’s Spred Satin) and margarine. During World War II, his work not only produced an important fire-fighting foam to combat gasoline fires on naval vessels, but he also made it possible to dissolve chocolate in cold water (to help keep bomber crews alert), which in turn led to breakthroughs in making chocolate flow, a boon to today’s candy bar industry. He developed lecithin, used to coat paper products, which also coated cardboard during World War II, so supplies could be dumped into the ocean by planes and safely carried to shore by the tide where soldiers retrieved them before they could become waterlogged. In the 1950s, he dramatically cut the cost of synthesizing the female hormone progesterone, making the development of birth control pills possible. He even pioneered liquid crystals, which were eventually used in “mood rings” of the 1970s, among other, more practical applications.
But there was more to Julian than science. Several mentioned his ability as a storyteller, his daughter Faith noting that his mesmerizing efforts at bedtime actually kept her wide awake instead of the intended result of putting her to sleep.
The Julian family story is mesmerizing in itself. He was the grandson of slaves. In fact, a slaveowner cut off two fingers from his grandfather’s hand to punish him for learning to read and write. Because Alabama didn’t provide a high school education for African Americans, when Julian entered DePauw University in Indiana, he was classified as a “sub-freshman,” meaning he had to make up high school classes in addition to his college load. He also worked several jobs (shining shoes, waiting tables, playing in a jazz ensemble). In spite of all the challenges, when he graduated four years later, he was the class valedictorian.
But as Jarrett noted, “he was still African American” and his path was never smooth. He persevered, beat all the odds, “was the hardest working man I ever met,” testified Hirsch. Added co-worker Peter Walton, “He believed sleep was detrimental to your health.”