This biographical documentary, originally broadcast on the PBS series “Nova,” celebrates one of the most important chemists of the 20th century. The grandson of Alabama slaves, Dr. Percy Lavon Julian overcame extraordinary barriers to achieve leadership positions within academia, organic chemistry and industrial pharmaceutical research.
In setting his career goals in chemistry (unheard of for an African American in 1920s America), Julian fought vigorously to obtain access to a Ph.D. program and wound up going to the University of Vienna when no American institution would accept him as a student. But he was unable to obtain a professorship outside of black colleges despite a 1935 landmark achievement in creating synthesized physostigmine from the calabar bean (the drug was used for glaucoma treatment).
Julian also found the corporate world closed to him (DuPont apologetically withdrew a job offer because the company was “unaware he was a Negro.” A stroke of luck landed him the barrier-breaking position as director of research at Glidden, where his experiments with soybean oil resulted in more than 100 chemical patents, including means to achieve the cost-effective synthesis of cortisone.
But despite his groundbreaking work in chemistry, Julian repeatedly faced rejection and violence due to his race. His home in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park was the target of arson and a firebombing, and a Maryland resort refused to allow him on its grounds to attend a scientific conference where he was a guest of honor (he was admitted after his white peers united to complain to the resort’s management).
Yet his refusal to acquiesce to the nation’s racist attitudes eventually brought about recognition from both his scientific and academic peers, culminating in his 1973 election to the National Academy of Sciences.
This documentary provides an extraordinary depth to Dr. Julian’s tumultuous life, highlighting not only his career achievements but also periods of self-destructive failure (including the publication of tactless private correspondence that resulted in his being removed from the staff of Howard University). Since few film or audio recordings of Dr. Julian exist, actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson recreates his life in handsomely produced vignettes that recall the chemist’s many challenges and ultimate triumphs.
Some minor complaints: running nearly two hours, the film occasionally becomes sluggish, especially in recalling Dr. Julian’s less-than-dramatic college years. Tighter editing and perhaps a shorter running time would’ve been helpful. Also, it might not have been a bad idea to rein in Santiago-Hudson’s plummy performance, which often seems inspired by Jon Lovitz’ “Master Thespian” melodramatics.
Still, Dr. Julian’s life story is an American inspiration and the film provides a long-overdue tribute to this brilliant man.