How 'Pharma bro' Martin Shkreli revived the legend of Oak Parker Percy Julian (well sort of ...)

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

Martin Shkreli, 32, may arguably be, as the BBC once wondered aloud, "the most hated man in America," but at least he knows some black history.

Shkreli, you may recall, is the wunderkind pharmaceutical CEO "who achieved instantaneous notoriety last fall when he acquired the U.S. rights to a lifesaving drug and promptly boosted its price over 5,000 percent, from $13.50 a tablet to $750," according to a December 2015 Vanity Fair article.

Recently, the young pharmaceutical entrepreneur has been on something of a public relations campaign and has made a point of stating that one of his pharma heroes is the famed Oak Park chemist Percy Julian. But while the two shared a connection to the pharmaceutical industry, their philosophy on industry profits couldn't have been more different.

During a Feb. 3 interview on the wildly popular New York City hip-hop radio show The Breakfast Club, Shkreli said this:

 "There are a few black men that matter in my life more than you can imagine," in response to one of the radio hosts asking him what he's doing to help the Black Lives Matter movement.

"One is a guy in D.C., who is my mentor. He's very close to the president and he's shepherded me in my success. Another man, who has passed away and who I never met, is Percy Julian — a man who nobody knows. He's arguably one of the most important men in pharmaceutical history and pharma guys don't even know who he is, so I won't expect anyone else to know who he is.

"Percy started a pharma company in the 1950's," Shkreli said. "As a black guy, that's practically impossible, but the guy was so good at chemistry — this is a Ph.D. chemist, nerdieset guy you can imagine, no one would respect him, no one would let him make money. He could synthesize steroids [which] is very difficult. He invented a [route] where he could make steroids cheaply and mass produce them and today everyone in this room has taken a steroid in their lives … for pretty much whatever ails you. Thanks to Percy, the world has changed."

Shkreli then referenced a photo of Julian standing with outstretched arms in front of the Franklin Park headquarters of his Julian Laboratories, Inc., which he would eventually sell in 1961 for $2.3 million, or around $18 million adjusted for inflation.

Shkreli then talked about a 2007 two-hour PBS documentary on Julian called "Forgotten Genius," which shows a photo that Shkreli said made him cry.

"It's him in a lab coat, a black guy, and about 30, 40 white people behind him and it just brought a tear to my eye, because this whole documentary [shows how he] fought, struggled and went against all the pain and hate people had for him and he just focused on his chemistry and he changed the world."

Shkreli's The Breakfast Club interview has garnered more than 700,000 YouTube views and has prompted innumerable internet trolls and regular people alike to YouTube search the PBS film, which can be viewed in two roughly hour-long parts. Most of the comments under the two videos are along the lines of, "Martin Shkreli brought me here," or "The Breakfast Club brought me here." One commenter asks, "Why don't we all know this man's name?"

Naturally, part two of the documentary has far fewer views than part one — which is unfortunate, because there's this ironic sequence that takes place around the 40-minute mark, which revisits Julian's decision to forego the opportunity to markup the price of a life-saving drug.

"I thought, personally, that that was a good opportunity to recover some profits lost on the low yields of the previous year," said Julian Laboratories chemist James Letton. "Instead, [Percy] dropped the price of the stuff from $4,000 a kilo to about $400 [a kilogram] and I couldn't understand why he'd do that."

"He wanted to make money," said another of Julian's chemists, "but he also wanted things to be available for people."

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com

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Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: February 19th, 2016 3:02 PM

Nice article.

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