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Monday, January 29, 2007

A super pioneer in own right

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

By now, anyone who has ever heard of the Super Bowl knows that for the first time a team in it will be coached by an African-American. Make that two: the Chicago Bears' Lovie Smith and the Indianapolis Colts' Tony Dungy.

For a professional sports league that once banned black players, it's a measure of how far they--actually we--have come. A few morons occupying the sumps of wild-eyed racists may oppose black National Football League coaches, but they're so deep underground, where they belong, we rarely, if ever, hear from them.

So, as we're about to start Black History Month, it might be a good thing to review our progress. By going back to when there were rules against blacks doing much of anything except staying out of sight. Now, there not only is an absence of rules against, say, black coaches; the welcome mat is out with a rule requiring that at least one black candidate be interviewed for each opening.

So, as Black History Month begins in a few days, we should not forget men such as Percy Julian.

The fact that most readers are asking "Who?" makes my point. Percy Lavon Julian, an African-American, may be one of the greatest chemists, if not scientists, of our time. If you're curious about how great, the popular PBS science series "NOVA" mentions him alongside Albert Einstein, Galileo and Isaac Newton. The 100th anniversary of his birth (1899 in Jim Crow Alabama, as the son of a railway clerk) passed with barely any notice outside of his profession--obscurity that can be racked up not just to the American public's scientific and engineering illiteracy, but also to his race. Amazingly, that's particularly so in Chicago, where he spent much of his remarkable career establishing a global reputation for his accomplishments in organic chemistry, especially in the synthesis of medicinal drugs.

In 1935 he synthesized physostigmine, a critically important drug for treating glaucoma, which had been available in only limited supply from its natural source, the Calabar bean. Over the next decades, the American Chemical Society has noted, his work led to numerous breakthroughs, from soybean protein, adopted by the Navy during World War II for fire-fighting foams, to chemical substances ("intermediates") that are key to the mass production of synthetics for treating rheumatoid arthritis.

Despite these achievements, and along with his master's degree from Harvard and his PhD from the University of Vienna, he still could not find employment because of active--not passive--discrimination against minorities.

Even DePauw University, where he graduated valedictorian and was elected Phi Beta Kappa, denied him a faculty position.

Rejected by academia, he turned to industry, where rejections continued until 1936, when W.J. O'Brien, a white vice president of Glidden Co. in Chicago, offered him a job as director of research for the company's Soya Products Division. There, as one chemist said, he made "an industry out of the simple soybean." In 1953 he established Julian Laboratories, which he later sold for millions. Despite his stature, folks still tried to burn down and bomb his Oak Park home.

He died on April 19, 1975, the first African-American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences.

You'll want to know more about this great man, even if your interests don't bend toward process chemistry, atom economy and waste minimization. Next week you can, as "NOVA" airs a two-hour documentary about Julian, called "Forgotten Genius." (In Chicago, the program will air on WTTW-Ch. 11 at 8 p.m. Feb. 6.) Hampered by a paucity of documentation because of his race, "NOVA" spent years tracking down and interviewing his aging contemporaries.

A moving force behind keeping Julian's memory alive is James P. Shoffner, emeritus chemistry professor at Columbia College and former board member of the American Chemical Society.

"Since I lived through some of those times, I can vouch for the honesty and integrity of the film," said Shoffner, an African-American. The movie, he said, honors a man who "was an inspiration and motivational figure for many young men and women. Although this was especially true for students and researchers of color, it was more generally true for all, no matter what their race, ethnicity or gender."

Still, said Joseph S. Francisco, a Purdue University chemistry professor, "Many African-American chemists are still struggling with some of the same issues."

Something to keep in mind as we celebrate the success of the Super Bowl coaches.

Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune


Anonymous said...

As president of the Northwestern University Chemistry Club in 1954-55, I was honored to introduce Percy Julian who spoke to our club about his work at Glidden and his newly established laboratory. I recall that he was the first African-American to live in Oak Park, which now has a beautiful new Middle School named after him.
Marjorie Alschuler, PhD

LegalEase said...

I enjoy your insight and writing style. You raise important issues that often lie outside the public's wandering eye. This particular entry is very appropriate given the paucity of attention heaped on African-American academics and scientists. This may sound odd coming from a white Chicagoan, but I like to think of myself as well-rounded. Ken Vanko

Norb Teclaw said...

What a great summary article of Dr. Julian's life. I am the President of the Institute for Science Education and Technology, an organization which values the expansion of the opportunities to honor the contributions of Dr. Percy Julian. We are co-hosting a preview of NOVA's "Forgotten Genius" tomorrow (Tuesday) night January 30, 2007 at 7:30 PM at Percy Julian Middle School at 420 S. Ridgeland in Oak Park. The program includes Julian's daughter, Faith, along with Dr. Jim Letton, Percy's past researcher and close friend. All are welcome to attend.

Robert G. Bottoms said...

Dear Mr. Bynre:

Thank you for choosing to write about Percy Julian and for highlighting his many achievements. At DePauw University Dr. Julian is revered as a brilliant chemist and human rights advocate, and our science and mathematics building is named in his honor.

As you correctly note in your editorial, Percy Julian was denied a faculty position at DePauw by the Board of Trustees, over the objections of the President and the Academic Dean. Although we are not proud of the decision made by the trustees in 1935, a time of deep discrimination against African-Americans in our country, we want to correct the impression that DePauw University abandoned Dr. Julian, or that we were alone in our actions.

When Percy Julian attended Harvard to earn his M.A. degree, he was not allowed a teaching assistantship because he was told that students from the South would not accept a Negro as a teacher. Harvard did not allow him to pursue a Ph.D. after he earned his Master’s degree. When he taught at Fisk University, he was denied access to Vanderbilt’s science library.

DePauw University has a long history of welcoming students from many races and different cultures. The first African-American and international students (from Japan) were enrolled in the 1870’s.

Although Dr. Julian must have been disappointed with the decision of the DePauw trustees not to grant him a faculty position, he maintained an active relationship with the University throughout his life. Dr Julian:

• Was awarded an honorary Doctorate from DePauw in 1947;
• Received the Old Gold Goblet from DePauw in 1950, recognizing eminence in life’s work and service to alma mater;
• Was elected to DePauw’s Board of Trustees in 1967 and contributed to the planning for a new science building;
• And his family endowed scholarships at DePauw and a fund for chemistry research and lectures.

During my tenure at DePauw, one of my highest priorities has been to enhance campus diversity because we learn more from people who bring different cultures, experiences and points of view to our community. I believe that were he still alive, Dr. Julian would be pleased with the progress we have made increasing the participation of under-represented students and faculty members to 15 percent each. We are proud of our record of welcoming students and faculty members from diverse backgrounds, and for our tradition of academic excellence and the uncommon success of our graduates.

Robert G. Bottoms, President
DePauw University