10 Black Scientists You Should Know

Percy Julian
Pioneering chemist Percy Julian holds an award from the Decalogue Society of Lawyers, ca. 1950s. © Bettmann/CORBIS

Percy Julian was the grandson of slaves but became one of history's greatest synthetic chemists, allowing many drugs to reach patients at much lower costs and wider availability.

He was born in 1899 in Montgomery, Ala., into a family that understood the transformative power of higher education. At 17, he enrolled in dual coursework as a high school senior and freshman at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., while also working to pay his way through school. Julian studied chemistry and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1920; he was the class valedictorian. After a brief stint as a teacher, he attended Harvard and earned a master's degree, followed by a doctorate from the University of Vienna. By 36, he'd returned to DePauw to conduct research and was the first to synthesize physostigmine, an alkaloid that occurs naturally in the calabar bean and is used to treat glaucoma.

Although Julian faced barriers -- he was once denied a research position because a town law forbade blacks to stay overnight -- he was propelled by his work. His soybean compound research led to a number of patents and pioneering medications like synthetic versions of the female hormone progesterone and the steroid cortisone (used to treat rheumatoid arthritis). Julian also produced a fire-retardant foam widely used during World War II.

By 62, he'd formed and sold his private enterprise, Julian Laboratories, for more than $2 million and continued to work as a researcher and consultant until his death in 1975 [source: American Chemical Society].