The Science of Tenacity

Percy Julian had been a fighter all his life. But in 1954, the organic chemist with a glittering career, appeared to be facing certain ruin.

He had invested every penny he had, and more that he had borrowed, in a plant to synthesize the steroid hormone progesterone.

The key to the process was the Barbasco yam that grew wild only in Mexico.

But the Mexican government wanted to protect its own steroid industry and would not allow Julian a supply.

So he sat in a hotel room in Mexico City, wondering if he should blow his brains out.

Percy Julian had always been tenacious; as an African-American born in Alabama in 1899, he needed to be.

In 1923, he graduated from Harvard with a M.Sc., but the university refused to let him complete his doctorate.

In 1931, he was awarded a PhD by the University of Vienna becoming the third African-American to hold a PhD in Chemistry.

In 1935, he achieved an internationally acclaimed breakthrough, with the total synthesis of the drug physostigmine from the Calabar bean.

He still couldn't find work.

When Glidden hired him as a Director of Research in 1936, it was rumored they hired him primarily, because he was fluent in German and they had recently acquired a plant in Germany.

Whatever their motivation, it proved to be a shrewd decision.

Over the 18 years he worked for them, Percy Julian made Glidden untold millions of dollars, and filed over 100 patents for the company.

In 1950, the Chicago Sun-Times named him Chicagoan of the Year.

The same year he moved his family to a house in Chicago’s Oak Park.

Before the family moved in, the house survived an arson attempt.

After they moved in, it was attacked with Dynamite.

For months every night Percy Julian sat in a tree in his yard, armed with a shotgun.

In 1953 he started his own company Julian Laboratories.

He landed a contract from The Upjohn Company to supply $2 million of progesterone.

But he couldn’t deliver it without the Mexican yam.

So he sat in his hotel room contemplating suicide.

There was a knock on the door.

Abraham Zlotnik was a former University of Vienna classmate.

Twenty years before, Julian had helped him escape from Nazi Germany.

Zlotnik was here to repay the favor.

He was sure the Barbasco yam also grew in Guatemala.

It did, and Julian Laboratories soon shipped the Upjohn order.

The company would nurture a generation of chemists.

The work Julian did there, and at Glidden, saved thousands of lives.

In 1973 Percy Julian was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

He was the second African-American to be so honored.

Reader's Digest dubbed him, “The Man Who Wouldn’t Give Up.”