STEAM in History: Percy Lavon Julian

STEAM in History: Percy Lavon Julian

Recent years have seen a boom in the power of plants. Before the current trends of plant-based diets and natural oils gained popularity, chemist Percy Lavon Julian recognized plants’ beneficial role in human health.

Despite facing many challenges as an African American during segregation, Julian played a significant role in revolutionizing the pharmaceutical industry. His many publications and patents led to the mass production of affordable drugs and products still relevant today.

Synthesis on Steroids:

Now and then, great discoveries happen when we least expect them. For Percy Lavon Julian, it was a plumbing accident that unexpectedly led to a groundbreaking revelation.

Julian was an expert in plant-based synthesis. He could take one substance and turn it into another through a series of chemical reactions. In the 1930s, scientists like him worked diligently to find alternatives to existing steroids such as progesterone, which is beneficial for preventing uterine cancer and serving as an effective hormone replacement therapy. Researchers had already discovered the process of synthesizing progesterone from stigmasterol, a compound containing the necessary steroids for hormone synthesis. However, without mass production, this invaluable substance would remain unaffordable for those who truly needed it.

So what mishap led to the big discovery? While working for Glidden Company's Soya Products Division in Chicago, plant workers informed Julian of a water leak in the company’s tank of purified soybean oil. The leak resulted in a solid mass of stigmasterol. He realized this was the key to producing progesterone in large quantities, eventually making approximately five to six pounds every day! It wasn't long before the artificial hormone was available on a commercial scale.

Success Despite All Odds:

Julian's remarkable dedication to developing products derived from plants is truly inspiring. Much like the notable George Washington Carver, his sustainable innovations made significant impacts on society, all thanks to his relentless quest for knowledge.

Despite facing adversity due to segregation laws, Julian's determination never wavered. He rose above countless challenges, becoming valedictorian of his class and later pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Vienna.

In time, he became a distinguished chemistry professor, and his passion for education and innovation eventually culminated in him founding his own company. He also served as a civil rights leader, leaving a lasting imprint on his community for generations to come.

In fact, people are still benefiting from Julian’s work. His plant-based glaucoma treatment as well as his innovative firefighting foam, derived from soybean and yam extracts, have been invaluable for so many. It’s no wonder he received inductions into the National Academy of Sciences and the National Inventors Hall of Fame. As a role model for today's budding scientists, Percy Lavon Julian certainly planted the seed of inspiration.

Activity: Design a STEAM Stamp Collection:

Although Julian died on April 19, 1975, the U.S. Postal Service created a stamp to honor him in 1993. Their Black Heritage series recognizes the achievements of individual African Americans and continues to do so each year.

Your learners can make their own stamp collection inspired by STEAM role models!

Challenge students to design a stamp that celebrates the accomplishments of STEM legends past and present. Consider including a blurb about each stamp design's inspiration and arrange them in a collaborative stamp collection book or on a bulletin board.

Browse our other STEAM In History posts for free downloads and resources that will help kickstart their research.

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When learners see themselves in others, they are empowered to achieve goals they never thought possible.

Keep inspiring learners with more STEAM role models featured in exciting programs like BrickLAB STEAMventures or Drone Designers!

Author: Jessica Ventre

An experienced elementary educator and science instructional coach, Jessica’s passion for STEM instruction and student-led learning is always at the forefront of her lessons and professional development workshops.

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African American subjects on United States postage stamps. (n.d.). USPS.

Abraham, N. (2023, March 27). Percy Lavon Julian. Encyclopedia of Alabama.

Library Resource Kit: Who Was Percy Julian? Expanded Version. (n.d.). NOVA Forgotten Genius.

Percy Lavon Julian. (2023, May 19). Science History Institute.

Shurtleff, W., & Aoyag, A. (n.d.). History of the Glidden Company’s Soya Products / Chemurgy Division. The Glidden Company.