Percy was born in 1899 in Montgomery, AL. He was the grandson of former slaves. As an African American, he was not allowed to attend high school. He was accepted into DePauw University even though he had not completed high school. He was not allowed to live in the dorms, but he got a job at a fraternity house where he could sleep and eat. Percy went on to become the valedictorian at DePauw.
He then went to Harvard where he earned a master’s degree in chemistry. Harvard would not allow him to pursue a PhD, so he went to Europe and obtained a doctorate at the University of Vienna.
Percy was denied teaching positions due to his race. He was then denied a position at DuPont because they were “unaware he was a negro.” He applied for a position at the Institute of Paper Chemistry in Appleton, WI. Appleton was a sundown town, forbidding African Americans from staying overnight. He was finally able to get a position with Glidden Company.
Over his career, Percy Julian developed chemicals which were used to
- treat people with glaucoma
- help some women avoid miscarriages
- treat some forms of cancer
- synthesize testosterone
- treat rheumatoid arthritis with a synthetic cortisone
He had over 100 patents. But his true legacy was developing techniques and products which subsequently led to discoveries for birth control and a chemical that is critical in organ transplants.
Before he passed away, Percy Julian commented that: “I have one goal in my life, that of playing some role in making life a little easier for the persons who come after me.” He certainly fulfilled that goal and left an amazing legacy of hope for others.
As Percy Julian said, legacies are about creating examples for others to follow. In Julian’s case, the legacy was both an incredible career of chemical discovqeries, but also an example of how to defeat racism. Legacies can also be how we live our lives and treat others. In a legal sense, legacies can be property, financial assets, or other tangible items. But the legacies that are the most meaningful are through our character, our values, and our beliefs and the hopes we instill in others.
Legacies are created over a lifetime. They are difficult to convey in shorter periods of time. While legacies may not be something we think about as we are young, we do start displaying the seeds of our legacy at an early age.
One final note: One wonders what the legacies were of the PhDs that Harvard admitted at the time they rejected Percy Julian.
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“The greatest legacy one can pass on to one’s children and grandchildren is not money or other material things accumulated in one’s life, but rather a legacy of character and faith.”
– Billy Graham (evangelist)