Dr. Percy Lavon Julian
Dr. Percy Lavon Julian, PhD, was an African American chemist and inventor who discovered how to chemically synthesize cortisone for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.
Cortisone helps reduce joint pain and swelling by dampening the body’s inflammatory response. It mimics the effects of naturally produced cortisol, which originally had to be extracted from the adrenal glands of oxen through a slow and expensive process.
Before the discovery of synthetic cortisone, it would have required about 14,600 oxen to treat one rheumatoid arthritis patient for a year, at a cost per gram several times more than gold.
Dr. Julian’s discovery led to a much more accessible and affordable approach to rheumatoid arthritis treatment that is still widely used today. He was able to bring the cost of treatment down to pennies per dose, rather than hundreds of dollars per gram.
Early Years and Education
Born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1899, the grandson of former slaves, Dr. Julian faced many barriers throughout his education and career. At the time, there were no local public high schools open to Black students, but he persisted and was admitted to DePauw University in Indiana, where he completed high school and university courses simultaneously. He graduated at the top of his class.
Dr. Julian was discouraged from pursuing higher education by his professors and instead took a position teaching chemistry at Nashville’s historically black Fisk University. He later completed a Master’s degree at Harvard but faced barriers to entering their doctoral program, so traveled to Austria to obtain his PhD from the University of Vienna.
Later returning to DePauw, Dr. Julian earned international acclaim for synthesizing an organic compound which could be used to treat glaucoma. Despite his success, he was denied a full professorship because of his race. He turned to the private sector, but again faced discrimination until he was finally offered a position as director of research at Glidden Company. Here he discovered a way to synthesize human sex hormones for cancer treatment and also helped develop a soy-based foam that could extinguish oil and gas fires, used to save thousands of lives in the Second World War.
After cortisone was discovered to be an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis in 1949, Dr. Julian found a way to chemically synthesize it to produce larger quantities at a lower cost. He paved the way for new treatments including oral medications such as prednisone for rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis, topical hydrocortisone for psoriatic arthritis, as well as corticosteroid injections.
With the success of his discoveries, Dr. Julian started his own company, Julian Laboratories Inc., later selling it for millions and starting a non-profit organization, Julian Research Institute.
In 1973, Dr. Julian became the first Black chemist elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and by the time of his death in 1975, held over 100 chemical patents.
The Arthritis Society celebrates the achievements of Dr. Percy Lavon Julian and how he has helped people with arthritis flourish to this day.
- Public Broadcasting Service. (1998). People and Discoveries: Percy Julian. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/bmjuli.html
- Biography.com. (2018). Percy Julian Biography. https://www.biography.com/scientist/percy-julian#:~:text=Julian%20continued%20his%20biomedical%20work,the%20treatment%20of%20rheumatoid%20arthritis
- Satyanarayana, M. (2019). Black Chemists You Should Know About. Chemical and Engineering News. https://cen.acs.org/people/profiles/Six-black-chemists-should-know/97/web/2019/02
- American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmarks. Percy Julian: Synthesis of Physostigmine. http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/julian.html (Updated June 2022)