Skip to main content

Percy Lavon Julian family papers

Identifier: MSD-1920-003

Collection Statement

The Percy Lavon Julian family papers are divided into three series: Series I, arranged chronologically, is papers, speeches, photographs, events, publications and awards of Percy L. Julian ‘20. Series II contains papers and photographs of Julian’s family members: James Sumner Julian (Honorary '70), Mattie Julian Brown '26, Elizabeth Julian White '28, Irma Julian Raybon '33, and Emerson R. Julian ‘38. Also included in this series are papers of Percy Julian’s parents and children. Series II is arranged alphabetically by name. The final section, Series III, consists of the annual Julian Memorial Lecture Series records, 1977-1996. These are arranged chronologically. The Julian family papers also includes manuscripts of six siblings: Percy Lavon Julian ’20, eminent scientist; James Sumner Julian, Jr. (Honorary ’70), physician; Mattie Julian Brown ’26, the first black woman to graduate from DePauw University and later a YWCA executive whose husband was in the U.S. diplomatic corps; Elizabeth Julian White ’28, Baltimore High School language teacher; Irma Julian Raybon ’33, Brooklyn social worker; Emerson R. Julian ’38, Baltimore physician and city council member.


  • 1920 - 2009

Access Restrictions

Collection is open for research.

Usage Restrictions

Copyright interests for this collection have been transferred to DePauw University.

Biographical Sketch

Percy Lavon Julian ’20 was born on April 11, 1899 in Montgomery, Ala., one of six children. His father, James Sumner Julian, a railroad mail clerk, and his mother, Elizabeth Lena Adams,a school teacher stressed education to their children.

Percy attended high school at the State Normal School for Negroes. Upon graduation in 1916, Julian applied to and was accepted into DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. At DePauw, he began as a probationary student, having to take higher level high school classes along with his freshman and sophomore course load. He proved himself well, going on to be named a member of the Sigma Xi honorary society as well as a Phi Beta Kappa member. Finally, upon graduation from DePauw in 1920, he was selected as the class valedictorian. Though at the top of his class, he was discouraged from seeking admission into graduate school because of potential racial sentiment on the part of future coworkers and employers. Instead, he took the advice of an advisor and took a position as a chemistry teacher at Fisk University, a Black college in Nashville, Tennessee. After two years at Fisk, Julian was awarded the Austin Fellowship in Chemistry and moved to the distinguished Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Finally given an opportunity at graduate level work, Julian excelled. He achieved straight A's, finishing at the top of his class and receiving a Masters Degree in 1923. Even with this success, Julian was unable to obtain a position as a teaching assistant at any major universities because of the perception that white students would refuse to learn under a black instructor. Thus, he moved on to a teaching position at West Virginia State College for Negroes, though he would not find happiness in this situation. He left West Virginia and served as an associate professor of chemistry at Howard University in Washington, D.C. for two years.

In 1929, Julian received a Fellowship from the General Education Board and traveled to Vienna, Austria in pursuit of a Ph.D. degree. While in Vienna, Julian developed a fascination with the soybean and its interesting properties and capabilities. Focusing on organic chemistry, Julian received his Ph.D. in 1931 and returned to the United States and to Howard University as the head of the school's chemistry department ( He soon left Howard and moved back to DePauw where he was appointed a teacher in organic chemistry. At DePauw, beginning in 1933, he worked with an associate of his from Vienna, Dr. Josef Pikl, on the synthesis of physostigmine, a drug which was used as a treatment for glaucoma. After much work and adversity, Julian was successful and became internationally hailed for his achievement. In late 1935, Percy Julian decided to leave the world of academics and entered the corporate world by accepting a position with the Glidden Company as chief chemist and the Director of the Soya Product Division. This was a significant development as he was the first black scientist hired for such a position. The Glidden Company was a leading manufacturer of paint and varnish and was counting on Julian to develop compounds from soy based products which could be used to make paints and other products. Julian did not disappoint, coming up with products such as aerofoam which worked as a flame retardant and was used by the United States Navy and saved the lives of countless sailors during World War II.

On December 24, 1935, Percy married Anna Johnson and they settled into their comfortable life in Chicago. Percy continued his success as he next developed a way to inexpensively develop male and female hormones from soy beans. These hormones would help to prevent miscarriages in pregnant women and would be used to fight cancer and other ailments. He next set out to provide a synthetic version of cortisone, a product which greatly relieved the pain of sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis. The real cortisone was extremely expensive and only rich people could afford it. With Julian’s discovery of the soy based substitute, millions of sufferers around the world found relief at a reasonable price. So significant was his work that in 1950 the City of Chicago named him Chicagoan of the Year. While the honor should have signaled Julian's acceptance by his white counterparts in his field and his community, but when he soon after purchased a home for his family in nearby Oak Park, the home was set afire by an arsonist on Thanksgiving day 1950. A year later, dynamite was thrown from a passing car and exploded outside the bedroom window of Percy's children. Despite the fact that many residents of the town relied upon his methods to relieve their pains of and provide for their safety, some still would not accept him because of his race.

In 1954, Julian left the Glidden Company to establish Julian Laboratories which specialized in producing his synthetic cortisone. When he discovered that wild yams in Mexico were even more effective than Soya beans for some of his products, he opened the Laboratorios Julian de Mexico in Mexico City, Mexico which cultivated the yams and shipped them to Franklin Park for refinement. In 1961 he sold the Franklin Park plant to Smith, Kline and French, a giant pharmaceutical company and received a sum of 2.3 million dollars.

After years of struggling for respect in his field and his community, Julian finally was recognized as a genius and a pioneer. He received countless awards and honors including the prestigious Spingarn Medal from the NAACP and was asked to serve on numerous commissions and advisory boards. He received fifteen honorary degrees as well as authoring and co-authoring more than 160 publications. He was trustee of five universities, including DePauw. Percy Julian died in 1975 of liver cancer in Waukegan, Ill.


2.315 Cubic Feet (8 document cases of 112 folders: also includes Mattie Julian Brown 1926, Elizabeth Julian White 1928, Irma Julian Raybon 1933, Emerson R. Julian 1938, and James Sumner Julian, Jr. (Honorary 1970))

Language of Materials


See also:

DC 1543: Percy Lavon Julian Science & Mathematics Center DC 2043, Item #73: "Exceptional Black Scientist" Poster, No. 1 in a series from CIBA-GEIGY Corporation DC 2519, 2520: "DePauw’s African American Heritage: the Pioneers," Archives Exhibit, created Fall 2000 DC 2047, Item #118 (3 copies): Posters (11"x17") promoting the airing of the NOVA program, Forgotten Genius DC 1983, 007.17.1-3: Museum Object - Percy Julian Black Heritage Stamp, Lapel Pin

Motion Picture #34 (Movie Box 12), DVD #256, 618, 620, Videotape #1054: "Developing Human Resources," Administration Office, March 17, 1953

DVD #617: Coming Together Conference: "Percy L. Julian" by Neal Abraham and Llew Smith DVD #632, #633: Percy Julian: Forgotten Genius, A PBS NOVA Bio-documentary profiling the life and legacy of pioneering African-American scientist Dr. Percy Julian. Starring actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Percy Julian. Narrated by Courtney B. Vance. CD #863, #864: Percy Lavon Julian Speaks... Recordings of Percy Lavon Julian stored in the DePauw University Archives Collection Audio Cassette Tape #2194: Dr. Cook’s Julian Lecture, March 28, 1999 Videotape #2767: Drama and Panel Discussion of Dr. Percy L. Julian, Oak Park / River Forest High School, April 11, 1999 Videotape #2770: Anna Johnson Julian, Rita Johnson Humanitarian Award, May 9, 1994 Videotape #2771-2772: Anna Johnson Julian Memorial Service, June 30, 1994

Percy Julian, Robert Robinson, and the Identity of Eserethole [Journal of Chemical Education, 85:11, (Nov. 2008)] / Addison Ault, Department of Chemistry, Cornell College, Mount Vernon, Ia.

DC 430 Faculty Reprints: 1. Neue Corydalis-Alkaloide: d-Tetrahydro-coptisin, d-Canadin und Hydro-Hydrastinin. Jahrg 64 1931. Sonderabdruck Aus: Berichte der Deutschen Chemischen Gesellschaft. Verlag Chemie. Berlin. / Ernst Spath and Percy Lavon Julian. 2. The Thermal Interconversion of Mixed Benzoins [Journal of the American Chemical Society, 54, 4756 (1932)] / Percy L. Julian and Walter Passler. 3. On the Progenitors of Certain Plant Alkaloids and the Mechanism of their formation in the plant structure [Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science, Vol. 43 (April 1934)] / Percy L. Julian. 4. Studies in the Indole Series: I. The Synthesis of Alpha-Benzylindoles [Journal of the American Chemical Society, 55, 2105 (1933)] / Percy L. Julian and Josef Pikl; II. The Alkylation of 1-Methyl-3- formyloxindole and a Synthesis of the Basic Ring Structure of Physostigmine [Journal of the American Chemical Society, 56, 1797(1934)] / Percy L. Julian, Josef Pikl and Doyle Boggess; III. On the Synthesis of Physostigmine [Journal of the American Chemical Society, 57, 539 (1935)] / Percy L. Julian and Josef Pikl; IV. The Synthesis of d,l-Eserethole [Journal of the American Chemical Society, 57, 563 (1935)] / Percy L. Julian and Josef Pikl; V. The Complete Synthesis of Physostigmine (Eserine) [Journal of the American Chemical Society, 57, 755 (1935)] / Percy L. Julian and Josef Pikl; VI. On the Synthesis of Oxytryptophan and Further Studies of 3-Alkylation of Oxindoles [Journal of the American Chemical Society, 57, 2026 (1935)] / Percy L. Julian, Josef Pikl and Frank E. Wantz; VII. The Course of the Fischer Reaction with Ketones of the Type R CH2 CO CH3. Alpha-Propyl and Alpha-Homoveratryl Indole [Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science 45:145-150 (1936)] / Percy L. Julian and Josef Pikl. 5. Additions to Conjugated Systems in the Anthracene Series: I. The Action of Phenylmagnesium Bromide on Methyleneanthrone [Journal of the American Chemical Society, 56, 2174 (1934)] / Percy L. Julian and Arthur Magnani; II. The Behavior of Certain Anthranols [Journal of the American Chemical Society, 57, 1607 (1935)] / Percy L. Julian and Wayne Cole; III. Factors Influencing the Mode and Extent of Reaction of the Grignard Reagent with Ketones [Journal of the American Chemical Society, 57, 2508 (1935)] / Percy L. Julian, Wayne Cole and Thomas F. Wood. 6. Homoamines and Homoacids [Journal of the American Chemical Society, 57, 1126 (1935)] / Percy L. Julian and Bernard M. Sturgis. 7. The Action of the Grignard Reagent on Certain Fuchsones [Journal of the American Chemical Society, 57, 2030 (1935)] / Percy L. Julian and William J. Gist.

Percy Lavon Julian family papers
class of 1920
Wesley Wilson
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
Language of description note
Description is in English.

Repository Details

Part of the Archives of DePauw University and Indiana United Methodism Repository

Roy O. West Library
405 S. Indiana St.
Greencastle Indiana 46135 United States