Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 659:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 659.

Today, a boy, facing a bleak future, teaches us all a lesson. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

What were the prospects for a smart black kid, grandson of a slave, born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1899? What hope could he hold? Those were Percy Julian's circumstances. Julian went to the so-called State Normal School for Negroes in Montgomery. It was a second-rate high school -- yet still available to very few.

From there he gained entry to DePauw University in Indiana as a remedial freshman. He studied chemistry, and he finished as class valedictorian in 1920. By hook and by crook he managed to earn a master's degree at Harvard and a Ph.D. degree in Vienna.

Percy Julian went back to DePauw to do basic work on drug synthesis. He established his reputation by synthesizing the drug used to treat glaucoma. But a black man could not yet be promoted to the professorial ranks -- even in the North.

So Julian became a research director at the Glidden paint and varnish company. There he synthesized soybean products. He created sizing for paper and textiles. He used soya protein to make fire-fighting foam.

He also synthesized hormones -- progesterone and testosterone -- from soybean oil. He patented an early liquid crystal.

Percy Julian is most famous for having synthesized cortisone. When he began, we had to make cortisone from the bile of oxen. It cost hundreds of dollars per drop. Julian located a wild sweet potato in Guatemala. He figured out how to synthesize cortisone from yams, for pennies a gram.

In 1954 he created his own pharmaceutical company, which he eventually sold for millions of dollars. In the end, he held over a hundred patents. And those patents represented palpable improvements in the quality of our lives. In the end, the chemical and academic communities heaped honors on Julian.

Those honors included 19 honorary doctorate degrees. At least nine universities named schools and buildings after him. One was DePauw, which once could not promote him into the professorial ranks.

Julian died in 1975. He'd lived most of his life in a world that simply didn't want to see his race. So we return to our question. What were Julian's prospects in 1899?

The answer, of course, is that he created his own prospects. He walked around barriers and he gave us far more than we gave him.

We all see our lives proscribed by circumstance and by our own limitations. We miss the point if we take Percy Julian's story as one to be used only by black Americans. His transcendence is something for us all to seek out -- in our own lives.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

The National Inventors Hall of Fame. A brochure published by the National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation, Inc., Room 1D01 -- Crystal Plaza 3, 2021 Jefferson Davis Highway, Arlington, VA 22202, 1990.

Jones, D.P., Julian, Percy Lavon. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Supplement, Vol. 17, (C.C. Gilespie, ed.) Chas. Scrib ner's Sons, 1981.

For more biographical material on Percy Julian, see


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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