Percy Julian: Chemistry and Civil Rights

Expand/Collapse Percy Julian: Chemistry and Civil Rights


In 1950, Percy Julian was one of the few African Americans with a Ph.D. He was Chicago's man of the year and a groundbreaking scientist. But it wasn't an easy road. Denied teaching positions and the target of death threats, Julian struggled to get ahead in a racially hostile world. Learn more about Percy Julian's contributions to science and civil rights. These resources, adapted from NOVA: "Forgotten Genius," explore how Julian revolutionized chemistry with the first synthesis of a chemical compound, as well as the challenges he overcame as an African American facing legalized segregation. Also check out the Teacher's Guide for this NOVA program.

  • Synthesizing an Alkaloid | Percy Julian

    Learn how chemist Percy Julian revolutionized chemistry with the first total synthesis of a chemical compound, physostigmine, an alkaloid derived from the Calabar bean that could be used in the treatment of glaucoma. Julian began with very simple substances and, through a series of precise chemical reactions, arrived at the complex final natural product. Also learn how purification and analysis are used to confirm the pathway, and how melting point can be used to provide evidence that synthesized and natural compounds are chemically the same. Explore more about this topic, from Percy Julian.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Scientific Processes | Percy Julian

    Learn about scientific processes and how they unfold and vary from one investigation to another, and examine the work of renowned scientists Percy Julian and Judah Folkman. While scientists may use an orderly approach to learn new information and solve problems, they proceed along different paths in their quests. Instead of referring to a delineated set of steps, the term "scientific process" encompasses the true nature of scientific inquiry. Explore more about this topic, from Percy Julian.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Build a Steroid | Percy Julian

    Learn about the molecular structure of steroids. See what happens at the molecular level when the organic steroid cortisone is produced in a laboratory from the "starter" compound diosgenin. Though it may closely resemble a given natural compound in structure, a synthetic precursor is subjected to a series of chemical reactions designed to add, subtract, or otherwise modify its atomic makeup so that it exactly matches the natural compound. Explore more about this topic, from Percy Julian.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Nature's Pharmacy | Percy Julian

    Learn about chemicals in nature that are used in medicine. Several plants, animals, and microorganisms have chemical compounds that are used in human medicine to treat disease and other conditions (including arthritis and malaria). Scientists have been able to create synthetic versions of natural compounds in the lab, yielding powerful drug compounds such as penicillin and cancer-fighting paclitaxel. Learn more about this topic, from Percy Julian.

    Grades: 3-12
  • Moving to Oak Park | Percy Julian

    Learn about the racial violence sparked when  chemist Percy Julian moved his family into an exclusive  suburb in 1950, from Percy Julian. Study both the threats and the support the family experienced from the Oak Park community, from Percy Julian.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Julian the Trailblazer | Percy Julian

    Learn how chemist Percy Julian overcame prejudice and segregation to become one of the leading scientists of the 20th century. From segregated schools in Alabama to a prestigious position and home in Chicago, follow the life and career of renowned 20th century chemist Percy Julian, who gained international recognition in chemistry despite the tremendous educational and social obstacles that African Americans faced. Explore more about this topic, from Percy Julian.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Synthesizing a Steroid | Percy Julian

    Learn about chemist Percy Julian's quest to make progesterone from a plant steroid in the 1940s.  Julian used careful observation, insight, and determination to search for a process for synthesizing the steroid progesterone in high volume. What appears at first to be a costly laboratory accident reveals to Julian the key to making large quantities of steroids, like progesterone and other important compounds, available to people who need them. Explore more about this topic, from Percy Julian.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Making Cortisone From Plants | Percy Julian

    Learn about chemist Percy Julian's work to synthesize cortisone, from Percy Julian. Julian's work made cortisone—a steroid used to treat rheumatoid arthritis—more easily accessible to millions of patients. Julian knew from earlier studies that plants and animals produced steroids with the same carbon-ring structure, so he isolated large quantities of molecules that closely resembled human cortisone from a cheap and abundant plant source—soybeans. Learn more about this topic, from Percy Julian.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Getting an Education | Percy Julian

    Learn about the education of chemist Percy Julian. Julian's early educational years paralleled an educational movement that prepared African Americans for industrial jobs, the growing white supremacist movement, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Julian would eventually move north, and finally to Europe to earn his Ph.D. Explore more about this topic, from Percy Julian.

    This video is available in both English and Spanish audio, along with corresponding closed captions.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Ringed-Carbon Compounds | Percy Julian

    Learn about alkaloids and steroids through interviews, animations, and photographs. The natural world is composed of a nearly endless variety of organic compounds. At the foundation of many of these compounds is the carbon ring, the structural component for two of nature's most important families of compounds. Explore more about this topic, from Percy Julian.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Strategies for an Equal Education | Percy Julian

    Examine inequality in education for African Americans in the 20th century, review the Fourteenth Amendment, and identify and examine strategies used to overcome discrimination—from Percy Julian.

    Grades: 6-12
  • The Process of Scientific Experimentation | Percy Julian

    Learn about the "scientific method" of experimentation through accounts of actual scientific research and the factors involved in real scientific processes, from Percy Julian..

    Grades: 9-12

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