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

    In this video segment, adapted from NOVA, learn how chemist Percy Julian revolutionized chemistry by synthesizing the alkaloid physostigmine from scratch—the first total synthesis of a chemical compound.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Scientific Processes

    In this interactive activity from NOVA, expand your understanding of the scientific process. Watch two videos featuring animations and interviews with scientists, and notice how the processes unfold and vary from one investigation to the other.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Build a Steroid

    In this interactive activity from NOVA, learn about the molecular structure of steroids. See the intermediate molecules that are part of the pathway for synthesizing cortisone from diosgenin.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Nature's Pharmacy

    In this interactive activity from NOVA, learn about chemicals in nature that are used in medicine.

    Grades: 3-12
  • Moving to Oak Park

    This video segment, adapted from NOVA, shows the racial violence sparked when the African American chemist Percy Julian and his family moved into an exclusiveChicago suburb in 1950.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Julian the Trailblazer

    Learn how chemist Percy Julian overcame prejudice and segregation to become one of the leading scientists of the 20th century. This interactive slideshow adapted from NOVA documents milestones in Julian's life and career.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Synthesizing a Steroid

    This video segment, adapted from NOVA, tells the story of chemist Percy Julian's quest to make progesterone from a plant steroid, an important medical advancement of the 1940s.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Making Cortisone From Plants

    This video segment adapted from NOVA is a dramatized story of chemist Percy Julian’s work to synthesize cortisone. Find out how a biological process, not a chemical one, proved the key to producing cortisone in bulk.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Getting an Education

    This video segment adapted from NOVA chronicles the education of chemist Percy Julian. Although Julian began his elementary school years in the Deep South under Jim Crow laws, he became one of the few African Americans of his time to earn a Ph.D.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Ringed-Carbon Compounds

    In this interactive activity from NOVA, learn about alkaloids and steroids, both examples of compounds with carbon rings. Short videos with interviews, animations, and photographs are featured.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Strategies for an Equal Education

    Students examine the inequality in education faced by African Americans in the 20th century. They review the Fourteenth Amendment, identify and examine strategies used to overcome discrimination, and analyze the advantages and disadvantages of each.

    Grades: 6-12
  • The Process of Scientific Experimentation

    Students expand their understanding of the "scientific method" of experimentation by watching video accounts of actual scientific research and exploring the factors involved in real scientific processes.

    Grades: 9-12

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