Percy Julian: Amazing Chemist, but “Forgotten Genius”?

April 10th, 2007

Back in February, I caught the two-hour NOVA special on the life of Percy Julian. I’ll give it 3.5 stars out of 5. Julian’s story is really interesting, and amazingly, the producers did an exceptional job of conveying the excitement of research in organic chemistry. While it gets a little slow towards the end, the program is well worth watching.

When I first heard about the episode, I was skeptical. Part of me was upset that of all the excellent chemists in the history of chemistry, Percy Julian was picked to be featured on TV. When faced with the decision to select one chemist to represent our profession, most of us would pick a legend like Woodward or Pauling. So, I sat there asking myself, “Why does Julian deserve to hold the torch for chemistry on television?”

Adding more fuel to the fire was that the program was titled “Forgotten Genius”. Given the circumstances of it being Black History Month, the obvious implication was that society had “forgotten” about Julian because he was black. Also, “genius” is a word that is probably used more frequently than is warranted. Both of these editorial statements in the title kind of put me on the attack before the program even aired. On the plus side, the potential for controversy definitely piqued my interest.

After watching the program, I came out with a much more favorable opinion than I had going in. The producers did a fantastic job of showing that Julian was an excellent chemist and an amazing man. Any argument to the contrary is simply untenable. Here’s a quick rundown of his credentials: He grew up in the Jim Crow South and tenaciously pursued his education into college, where excelled in his courses by finishing first in his class at DePauw. He gained admission to Harvard for graduate study, but had to leave with a master’s degree due to his inability to secure a teaching fellowship because of his race. After completing a Ph.D. overseas, he set up a lab at DePauw, where he beat Sir Robert Robinson to the total synthesis of physostigmine and embarrassed the synthetic legend in the process. Despite his credentials, Julian was unable to secure a job at Depauw or in industry because he was black. Eventually, he was offered a position at Glidden. There, he directed the Soya Products Division, and his discoveries of uses for soy mirrored everything that George Washington Carver is celebrated for with the peanut, and more. Julian made important contributions to total synthesis, steroid chemistry, and materials chemistry. After Glidden terminated its steroid work, Julian moved on to start his own chemical company, where he challenged the Syntex monopoly in front of Congress and won. And as if all of these achievements weren’t impressive enough, Julian accomplished them in the face of an appalling amount of racism in both the chemical establishment and the Chicago community.

Simply amazing. I knew parts of his story, but most of the details were completely new to me. While I got more than my money’s worth, even at the end, the title “Forgotten Genius” left a sour taste in my mouth. Personally, I hadn’t “forgotten” about Julian—I never really knew his story. While society may have forgotten about him, Julian is hardly unique in this regard. Our society didn’t forget about Percy Julian because we’re racist, but because he worked in chemistry and in industry, where the credit is spread more thinly. How many industrial chemists can the general public name? I’m a chemist, and while I didn’t know that Percy Julian developed soy into fire suppressants at Glidden, I still don’t know the names of the scientists who invented pressure-sensitive adhesives at 3M, nor the people who developed Viagra at Pfizer. These are remarkable achievements, but aside from Carothers, Plunkett, and Derek Lowe, I’m at a loss to name more than a handful of industrial chemists whom I don’t know personally.

As for my initial reaction to Julian being chosen over Woodward or Pauling, perhaps my problem was that I watched this program as an insider wanting the fundamental history of chemistry to be told, whereas most viewers probably tuned in to be entertained. After giving the issue more thought, it occurred to me that Julian is a much better person to present to the general public than someone like Woodward. While we appreciate RBW’s accomplishments as experts, his creativity would be very hard to convey to a lay audience. Contrast that with the achievements of Julian, whose crosses to bear are much more obvious and easy for the general public to relate to.

Indeed, with a few exceptions (like presidential addresses and debates), the main purpose of television programs is to get ratings—even on PBS. The purpose of television is not to give credit to deserving chemists or to educate the public. Percy Julian’s story was compelling and perfect for Black History Month. In this regard, it was a win for NOVA, but it was also a win for chemistry. For one night, the show made our science seem exciting and relevant, though perhaps elitist and inaccessible. Even with those minor drawbacks, we should take what we can get. Chemists are simply awful at promoting chemistry to the general public. Contrast this with physics, where Einstein is a God, cosmology has fueled countless sci-fi series like Star Trek, and Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, Neil deGrasse Tyson appear on TV left and right. Who is the face of chemistry? For all the good that chemistry does in the world, all we get is bad press in the form of chemical spills, plant explosions, weapons of mass destruction, hazardous waste, and editorials on how drug companies are evil and oil companies make too much money. Even the word “chemical” has a negative connotation. While one TV show on PBS won’t fix our problem, recounting the stories of some “chemical heroes” will go a long way. NOVA made an excellent choice in Julian. Now, will other chemists follow or is this party over?

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One Response to “Percy Julian: Amazing Chemist, but “Forgotten Genius”?”

  1. Paul Says:

    Looking back from 2012, I guess the party was over.


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