Percy Julian and the Invention of Improved Synthesized Cortisone

Pioneering Chemist Percy Julian Holding Award
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Percy Julian synthesized physostigmine for treatment of glaucoma and synthesized cortisone for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Percy Julian is also noted for inventing a fire-extinguishing foam for gasoline and oil fires. Dr. Percy Lavon Julian was born on April 11, 1899, and died on April 19, 1975.

Percy Julian - Background

Born in Montgomery, Alabama and one of six children, Percy Julian had little schooling. At that time, Montgomery provided limited public education for Blacks. However, Percy Julian entered DePauw University as a "sub-freshman" and graduated in 1920 as class valedictorian. Percy Julian then taught chemistry at Fisk University, and in 1923, earned a master's degree from Harvard University. In 1931, Percy Julian received his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna.

Percy Julian - Achievements

Percy Julian returned to DePauw University, where his reputation for inventing was established in 1935 by his synthesizing physostigmine from the calabar bean. Percy Julian went on to become director of research at the Glidden Company, a paint and varnish manufacturer. He developed a process for isolating and preparing soybean protein, which could be used to coat and size paper, to create cold water paints, and to size textiles. During World War II, Percy Julian used a soy protein to produce AeroFoam, which suffocates gasoline and oil fires.

Percy Julian was noted most for his synthesis of cortisone from soybeans, used in treating rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions. His synthesis reduced the price of cortisone. Percy Julian was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1990 for his "Preparation of Cortisone" for which he received patent #2,752,339.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater had this to say about Percy Julian:

"Those who had earlier sought to keep their slaves in chains were well aware of the threat education posed to their 'peculiar' institution. Consider what happened to the grandfather of Dr. Percy Julian, the great Black research chemist who, over his lifetime, was awarded 105 patents--among them a treatment for glaucoma and a low-cost process to produce cortisone. When Percy Julian decided to leave Alabama to go to college in Indiana, his entire family came to see him off at the train station, including his ninety-nine-year-old grandmother, a former slave. His grandfather was also there. His grandfather's right hand was two fingers short. His fingers had been cut off for violating the code forbidding slaves to learn to read and write."

The History of Cortisone Before Percy Julian

Cortisone is a natural hormone secreted by the cortex of the adrenal glands, located near the kidneys. In 1849, a Scottish scientist named Thomas Addison discovered the connection between the adrenal glands and Addison's disease. This lead to more research on the function of the adrenal glands. By 1894, researchers had concluded that the adrenal cortex produced a hormone they called "cortin".

During the 1930s, Mayo Clinic researcher, Edward Calvin Kendall isolated six different compounds from the adrenal glands and named them compounds A through F, in the sequence of their discovery.

Edward Calvin Kendall discovered the antirheumatic properties of cortisone in 1948. On September 21, 1948, compound E (renamed cortisone) became the first glucocorticoid to be administered to a patient with rheumatoid arthritis. A 1948 New York Times article reported that: "the African Strophanthus plant will prove to be a source of raw material out of which cortisone, the new anti-rheumatic introduced a few months ago as Compound E, can be synthesized."

Edward Calvin Kendall was awarded the 1950 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine (together with fellow Mayo researcher Philip S. Hench and Swiss researcher Tadeus Reichstein) for the discovery of adrenal cortex hormones (including cortisone), their structures, and functions.

Cortisone was first produced commercially by Merck & Company on September 30, 1949.