Pioneering chemist Percy Julian is the subject of upcoming NOVA documentary.
Two Lehigh University professors will be featured experts in a forthcoming NOVA documentary titled "Forgotten Genius”
, which profiles African-American chemist Percy Julian. The documentary, slated to air on PBS stations throughout the country on Feb. 6 in honor of Black History Month, chronicles the sometimes-controversial life of Julian, who is widely recognized as one of the most accomplished African-American scientists of the 20th century.
Lehigh associate professor of history John K. Smith, an expert in the history of industry, will provide historical context for the era in which Julian entered and eventually thrived within the corporate world.
Ned D. Heindel
, the Howard S. Bunn Professor of Chemistry at Lehigh and former president of the American Chemical Society, discusses Julian’s scientific accomplishments.
Specifically, Heindel offers scientific explanations of the chemical structure of an exotic natural compound, physostigmine, which is the active ingredient in calabar beans and was once used to treat glaucoma. Julian’s work with physostigmine challenged that of British chemist Robert Robinson in 1934. The dramatic confrontation raised Julian’s profile in the scientific world, and his synthesis of physostigmine is categorized as a National Chemical Landmark by the ACS.
As a result of this and several other major accomplishments, Julian ultimately became the first African-American chemist ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
Heindel notes that Julian’s notable discoveries and accomplishments were remarkable not only for their long-term scientific and industrial application, but for the context in which they occurred.
“When you consider that he was able to do this work in an ill-equipped basement laboratory in a small liberal arts college in Indiana, it’s even more remarkable,” says Heindel, who had earlier researched Julian’s career for a presentation to the American Chemical Society.
“What he had was enormous creativity, and an incredible ability to pull even the tiniest observation that no one else paid attention to, and apply it to his own work. We can consider him among the best and the brightest scientists of his day, largely because of his inventiveness and creativity.”
Julian’s later success in the corporate world was equally remarkable, given the corporate climate of mid-20th century, Smith says.
“During the 1930s, after Julian left the academic world and began to work for the Glidden Company as a chemist, that whole world of industrial research was incredibly WASP-ish,” says Smith, who studied the corporate culture for a book he co-authored on Dupont. “So for Julian to be hired by a major chemical company, and to be in a managerial role, was really something. There was really no one else at that time.”
Julian thrived at Glidden, devoting his research to soybean oil and the natural chemicals isolated from soybean, as well as the development of other soy-based products. Although the company was best known as the manufacturer of paint products, Julian was able to successfully develop other compounds while at Glidden, such as a flame retardant that was used during World War II, and was able to isolate a steroid-like chemical that eventually led to the manufacture of male and female sex hormones.
“Following World War II,” Smith says, “Glidden wasn’t really interested in continuing that research, so Julian took his business private, made quite a bit of money for himself, became the first African-American to move into the affluent area of Oak Park, Ill., and faced a considerable level of prejudice.”
Historical accounts indicate that Julian’s family was terrorized by arson attempts, and one particularly ugly incident in which a dynamite was thrown from a passing car and exploded outside the bedroom of one of his children.
"A noteworthy life"
As a result primarily of those experiences, Smith says, Julian became active in the civil rights movement as an activist and benefactor, and was eventually widely recognized for his pioneering efforts before dying of liver cancer in 1975.
“It was certainly a noteworthy life,” says Smith, “My view is that he was a very good chemist, who went into a corporate industrial world where no other Blacks were, who became a chemical entrepreneur, ran a successful business and, later in life, became a civil rights activist.”
Smith and Heindel join an impressive list of distinguished scholars who contributed to the documentary, including academics from MIT, Harvard and Johns Hopkins.
Smith has been a frequent contributor to historical documentaries produced by NOVA, the History Channel, and the Public Broadcasting System. Most recently, he provided expert analysis on the history of Bethlehem Steel for a forthcoming PBS special.
As a result of his role in the Julian project, Heindel will be working with NOVA producers on a 2008 documentary tentatively titled “The Mystery of Matter,” which traces the history of the atom over the course of several centuries.