In the 1950’s, Dr. Percy Julian, scientist and medical researcher, found a way to mass produce a drug used to treat glaucoma.
Dr. Julian was born just before the turn of the century in Montgomery, Alabama and accomplished amazing things before his death in 1975. The grandson of a slave who endured more than his share of discrimination, he went on to become one of the most celebrated research chemists of our time.
Dr. Julian was one of the first African Americans to be recognized by the National Academy of Sciences and one of a small handful of scientists (of any race) to be featured on a postage stamp. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from DePauw University, got his masters at Harvard and a PhD from the University of Vienna — in addition to 19 honorary degrees and 18 academic and civic citations.
These accomplishments were no small feat considering his humble beginnings. When Dr. Julian was a young boy growing up in Montgomery, public education was not provided for African Americans after the eighth grade. In 1951, when they were the first African-American family to move into Oak Park, outside of Chicago, Julian’s home was firebombed. He persevered and not only achieved academic greatness but went on to make major discoveries that led to the manufacture of drugs now used to treat such diseases as arthritis and cancer.
He was innovative for his time. He often made use of natural ingredients such as soybean products. He even was responsible for developing a fire retardant now used in fire extinguishers. Dr. Julian’s work has yielded over 100 patents. After leaving Vienna, he returned to DePauw as a research associate. There, he collaborated with another scientist and carried out the first total synthesis of the naturally occurring drug physostigmine, a treatment for glaucoma.
Glaucoma is a disease that steals sight without warning and occurs in high numbers in people of African descent. It is, in fact, the leading cause of preventable blindness among African Americans. African Americans are 5 times more likely to get glaucoma than Caucasians. The most common form of glaucoma, open angle glaucoma, accounts for 19% of all blindness among African Americans compared with 6% in Caucasians.
Thomas M. Brunner, President and CEO of Glaucoma Research Foundation says, “Dr. Julian was a hero. His legacy is still alive and in the forefront of our fight against glaucoma. We are proud to honor his life and solute his important contributions to scientific research.”
Reviewed February 2, 2022