Glidden paints and how Dr Percy Lavon Julian changed the world

I recently heard an interesting story. It begins with a guy called Percy Lavon Julian.

Percy, was an African-American. The grandson of a slave, he was born in 1899. Growing up he witnessed a lynched body hanging from a tree at the age 12.

At a time when access to higher education was almost unheard of for African-Americans, Percy attended Depauw university, in Greencastle, Indiana. He was one of few African-American students accepted into the university at the time. Although he was allowed to attend, he was segregated and had to stay in an off campus dorm, who refused to feed him.

Percy began teaching at Harvard, with the aim of achieving his Ph.D. But after many setbacks, Julian finally got his Ph.D. from the university of Viennna, having been removed from Harvard, due to fears students would resent being taught by an African-American.

For some time Percy struggled to find work. In 1936 he was denied a professorship at Depauw for racial reasons. Dupont had also declined to hire Percy, despite his qualifications, apologising when he had arrived that they had been ‘’unaware he was a Negro’’

Despite all these setbacks Percy, the first ever African-American to receive a doctorate in Chemestry, was eventually inducted into the national Academy of Sciences, being the second only African-American at the time.

In 1936 the Vice President of Glidden paints offered Percy the position of director of research at Glidden's Soya Products Division in Chicago. Here he was to carry out research on soybeans. The research was aimed at trying to improve the adhesion of paints in cold weather.

However his success led to the discovery of lecithin, used to keep chocolate smooth, a fire-retardant chemical used on US Navy ships in World War II, and many oils for paints, salad dressings, margarines, dog food, plastics, ply woods and glues.

Later, an accident caused water to leak into a batch of soya protein, separating out some white solids. Percy recognised these as plant sterols, which he was able to modify into cheap sex hormones for medical use. Previously this had been an expensive process, as only small quantities could be extracted from hundreds of pounds of pig overies.

This led to the production of treatments for rheumatoid arthritis and eventually helped produce the birth control pill.

After 17 years Percy left Glidden and went on to set up his own progressive research lab, giving opportunities to many other African-Americans and women.