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Black brilliance

When American history books mention famous black scientists, the list usually doesn't go much further than botanist George Washington Carver, the former slave who did wonders for the peanut. Why aren't there more on the list? Over the decades, there's been a lot of talk about racial differences in intelligence scores, paralleling the debate over the gender gap in math and science. But the case of industrial chemist Percy Julian, a pioneer in the production of synthetic alkaloids and steroids, illustrates how racial stereotypes and downright discrimination served to dull black brilliance.

Lolita Parker Jr. / WGBH

Ruben Santiago-Hudson portrays
chemist Percy Julian in the PBS
documentary "Forgotten Genius."

Perhaps you're asking, "Percy who?" Well, that's the whole point of a public-TV documentary premiering this week, titled "Forgotten Genius." The two-hour "Nova" presentation, timed to coincide with Black History Month, is the first in-depth program to tell Julian's story. And it's a tale that may well inspire future generations of brainy African-Americans.

It's hard to focus on your research goals when employers shut the door in your face, freely admitting that it's just because of the color of your skin. And it's a challenge to keep your eyes on the scientific prize when your house has been firebombed and almost dynamited. But that's just what Julian did: He not only showed the way to new techniques in chemistry that still apply today - he ended up becoming a millionaire in the process.

Julian's breakthroughs started out with the discovery of a method for synthesizing physostigmine, an alkaloid used in the treatment of glaucoma. Over the years, he and his lab colleagues derived dozens of products from soybeans, including firefighting foam, a substance that could be converted into progesterone for warding off miscarriages, and an inexpensive compound that could be turned into cortisone for treating rheumatoid arthritis.

"Forgotten Genius" uses cutting-edge computer graphics to show how the chemistry works, and it uses archival photos and re-enactments to show how Julian branched out on his own to commercialize his innovations in cortisone production. Success didn't come easy: Julian had to duke it out with other companies - at one point even testifying before Congress on what he saw as unfair trade practices. But Julian Laboratories turned a profit, and Julian himself became one of the country's richest African-Americans.

After he sold his company in 1961, Julian continued his scientific work at the Julian Research Institute, but he also became a strong supporter of the civil rights movement up until his death from cancer in 1975.

"Forgotten Genius" portrays Julian in his latter days as a man who had great achievements, but great regrets as well.

"There's no doubt that he had the feeling that he could have accomplished much more had it not been for the prejudice and racial animosity that he had to deal with," said James Shoffner, a student of Julian's who is now adjunct professor of science at Columbia College's Institute for Science Education and Science Communication. "Here was a person who was highly motivated and inspired. The weight of discrimination, the inability to go in the direction that he wanted to at a particular time ... there's no doubt in my mind that he was held back by that."

Academic doors were often closed to him, and one company in Wisconsin decided not to hire him because of an ordinance forbidding blacks from staying overnight within city limits.

"Even though he eventually succeeded, the route he took was not a route that he had very much to say about," Shoffner told me. "There's a saying in football, that a quarterback takes what the defense is giving him. In a sense, that's what Dr. Julian had to do throughout his life. He took what was available to him."

But that was a different age, right? Haven't 40-plus years of civil rights legislation made the situation today much better for blacks in science?

"Indications are that it has not improved a great deal, particularly in academia," Shoffner said. He pointed to studies conducted by University of Oklahoma chemist Donna Nelson, showing that there's still a disparity between blacks and whites in the higher levels of the scientific community.

"Industry has performed much better, although there is room to grow there, too," Shoffner said.

Shoffner, who shows up as a commentator in "Forgotten Genius," hopes the documentary will do more than merely highlight another name in the list of hallowed black scientists.

"Everyone likes to see every individual get their just due, and Dr. Julian did not get the proper acclaim during his lifetime," Shoffner said. "But we also hope it will be an inspiration to many young people who will be hearing about his exploits for the first time."

Still more accolades may be coming Julian's way: Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has introduced a resolution that would honor the chemist's memory, and it's hard to imagine why it wouldn't pass. For more about Julian and his legacy, check out the "Nova" Web site, or this Web presentation from the Chemical Heritage Foundation, or this text-plus-audio report from the University of Houston. And click on over to Black-Scientists.com as well as our own clickable roundup of "Creative Geniuses" to read more tales of black innovators.

When it comes to the next generation, there are plenty of creative geniuses to go around. Shoffner passed along a list of just a few of today's black chemists working on tomorrow's breakthroughs. All of them are fellows in the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers:

  • James Mitchell,  vice president, Materials Research Laboratory (Lucent, retired).
  • Paula Hammond, professor of chemical engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Sharon Haynie, research associate, DuPont.
  • Greg Robinson, professor of chemistry, University of Georgia.
  • Joseph Francisco, professor of chemistry at Purdue University.
  • James Letton, research fellow at Procter & Gamble (retired) and one of Julian's former employees.
  • Isiah Warner, professor of chemistry at Louisiana State University.

Among the innovations these scientists have worked on are synthetic spider silk, eco-friendly "green" chemistry, alternatives to the ozone-depleting chemicals once used in refrigeration, and new blends of organic and inorganic chemistry that could be applied to nanotechnology.

It was with some reluctance that Shoffner listed these few - because he was aware there were so many other great black chemists out there, not to mention black scientists working in other fields. "I really do want to give credit to some young scientists who I think are going to do great things. Yet, I know I will miss some. It's always a dilemma," Shoffner wrote.

Fortunately, the list needn't be limited: Feel free to add to the roster of black scientists, or add your own scientific angle to Black History Month, simply by filling out the comment form below.