Dr. Percy Lavon Julian was an African American chemist who is most well known for extracting medicinal drugs from plants. He was born in Montgomery, Alabama on April 11, 1899 to James Sumner and Elizabeth Lena Julian. His grandparents had been slaves in the Civil War era and Julian grew up facing immense racial segregation. His parents were intent on getting a good education for their children, despite the fact that there were no high schools for black students at the time. Julian studied till 8th grade but could not finish his high school education beyond that. Undeterred, he applied to DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana where he had to first take additional evening classes to bring himself at par with his fellow students as he hadn’t completed his high school education. Julian was not allowed to live in the college dorms or eat meals there so he had to find off campus accommodation for himself. He also held a number of odd jobs to support his education including waiting tables and working at a fraternity house, where he slept in the attic.
Percy Julian graduated from DePauw University in 1920 with honors and as the class valedictorian. He then joined Fisk University as a chemistry instructor, before receiving an Austin Fellowship in Chemistry in 1923 which allowed him to attend Harvard University. However, his teaching assistantship was withdrawn as the management felt that other students would resent being taught by an African American, so Julian left Harvard since he would be unable to complete his Ph.D. there. A few years later, he was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship which allowed him to pursue his Ph.D. at the University of Vienna. Europe was relatively free from the racial prejudice that prevailed in America, and Julian enjoyed participating in discussions and social gatherings with his peers. He received his Ph.D. in 1931 which made him one of the first few African Americans to have achieved this.
Julian then returned to America and obtained a teaching position at Howard University.