Percy Julian: The King of Synthetic Things

Percy Julian: The King of Synthetic Things

Percy Julian: The King of Synthetic Things

Hey there science fans! Today we're going to learn about a scientist named Percy Julian. Now, you may not have heard of him before, but let me tell you, this guy was no ordinary scientist. He was a true trailblazer and a brilliant mind.

Percy Julian was born in 1899 in Alabama, and from a young age, he had a passion for science. He went on to study at DePauw University in Indiana where he earned his undergraduate degree and later went on to complete his master's degree at the University of Vienna in Austria.

But it was when he returned to the United States and began working on his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago that Julian made some of his most important contributions to science. He was interested in finding ways to synthesize hormones and drugs from natural products.

During his research, Julian discovered a way to synthesize a compound called cortisone, which is used to treat conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and asthma. This was a huge deal because at the time, cortisone could only be obtained from the adrenal glands of animals, which was very expensive and not sustainable. Julian's discovery made cortisone more affordable and accessible to people who needed it.

But that's not all, Percy Julian also discovered a way to synthesize a compound called physostigmine, which is used to treat glaucoma. And he also developed synthetic alternatives too expensive natural products such as rubber and soybean oil.

Julian's work was groundbreaking and had a significant impact on the field of chemistry and medicine, making it possible for people to access treatments they needed to improve their quality of life.

But Julian's contributions to science were not always recognized. Despite his achievements, he faced discrimination and racism throughout his career. He was not allowed to work in certain labs and was even denied membership to some professional organizations because of his race.

Percy Julian, right, is joined by his former student Arthur Magnani to watch the manufacturing progr

Despite the obstacles he faced, Percy Julian persevered and made a lasting impact on the world. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1973, and his story serves as an inspiration to all of us to never give up on our dreams and ambitions, despite the obstacles that may come our way.

For his contributions to humanity and civil rights, Julian received 18 honorary degrees and more than a dozen civic and scientific awards. He was the second African-American elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the first chemist. Percy Julian died in 1975, at the age of 76.

So, next time someone you know receives cortisone for their asthma or knee pains or uses a tube of ointment for glaucoma, thank Percy Julian for his amazing work that made that possible. He truly made a difference in the world and his legacy will continue to live on.


The Magic Shrinking (Cortisone) Game

Materials needed:

  • Markers or crayons
  • Construction paper or cardboard
  • Cotton balls
  • Glue
  • Water
  • Droppers or pipettes
  • Small plastic cups or bowls
  • Printouts of illustrations of knee joints (included)
  • Arrrgh Mighty Observation Journal (Optional)


What can you spy with your scientific eye? Who’s ready to learn how medicine helps to shrink something down? Let’s go!


Explain to the children that cortisone is a type of hormone that is produced by the body and helps reduce inflammation.

  • Have the children glue their illustrations of knee joints to construction paper. 
  • Color the illustration of the joint.
  • Have the children glue cotton balls to the “joints” they drew to represent inflammation in the joints.
  • Have the children use a small amount of water in a dropper or pipette to represent cortisone cream and use it to dab the cotton balls.
  • Have the children observe how the “cortisone cream” affects the cotton balls and how it reduces the inflammation on the “joint”.
  • Discuss with the children how cortisone works in the body to reduce inflammation and how it can help alleviate pain and swelling in joints.
  • Optionally, children can also match their illustrations with a worksheet provided with illustrations of joints.
  • Optional: Grab your Arrrgh Mighty Observation Journal and describe or draw what you see.

This activity is a fun and interactive way to introduce the concept of inflammation and how cortisone helps reduce it in the body. It also helps children understand the importance of maintaining a healthy body and the role of hormones in the body.


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