Percy Lavon Julian: Pioneering Chemist


Known as the “soybean chemist” for his extraordinary success in synthesizing innovative drugs and industrial chemicals from natural soya products, Percy Lavon Julian was an internationally acclaimed scientist whose discoveries earned him more than 130 chemical patents and a host of professional awards. Among his most important contributions were the creation of a synthetic version of cortisone, a drug used to relieve the pain and inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis, and physostigmine, prescribed to alleviate the effects of glaucoma—a disease of the eye that can cause blindness if left untreated. Julian’s work with soybeans and soya derivatives also led to the mass production of the male and female hormones testosterone and progesterone and the development of a powerful firefighting chemical called Aero-Foam, used by the U.S. Navy during World War II. The first African American to direct a modern industrial laboratory, he spent 17 years with the Glidden Company in Chicago before leaving to establish his own successful pharmaceutical enterprise, Julian Laboratories, Inc.

Percy Julian synthesized physostigmine for treatment of glaucoma; and synthesizedcortisone for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Percy Julian is also noted for inventing a fire-extinguishing foam for gasoline and oil fires.

Julian held more than 100 chemical patents, wrote scores of papers on his work, and received dozens of awards and honorary degrees. He founded The Julian Laboratories, Inc., with labs in the U.S. and Mexico (both purchased by Smith Kline French in 1961) and another chemical plant in Guatemala (owned by Upjohn Company since 1961). In 1951, Julian and his family moved to Oak Park, Illinois, becoming the first black family to live there. His house was firebombed twice, but the community largely backed him and today celebrates his birthday as a holiday.

George E. Alcorn: X-Ray Spectrometer


The question of whether or not life exists on other planets has intrigued people for centuries. Physicist George Edward Alcorn Jr. figured out how to find out. In 1984 Alcorn and his colleagues patented a device to detect extraterrestrial life: the imaging X-ray spectrometer. This device is one of dozens that Alcorn has invented over the years, and the one with the most popular appeal. That’s not to say Alcorn’s other work isn’t interesting. It is. But George Edward Alcorn is an atomic and molecular physicist, and his work is very complex. In addition to Alcorn’s work detecting planetary life, he has also studied missile trajectory and orbits, invented components for semiconductors, designed instruments used in space, and created devices to detect atmospheric contaminants, among other things. For his work Alcorn has won the esteem of his colleagues and his industry’s top awards, including NASA’s Inventor of the Year Award in 1984.

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