BLOGS

Dr. Percy L. Julian...

Percy Julian in the Minshall Laboratory at DePauw University during his tenure as a research fellow. Courtesy DePauw University Archives.

Topics: African Americans, Chemistry, Civil Rights, Diversity in Science, Education, History, Human Rights

In 1935, in Minshall Laboratory, DePauw alumnus Percy L. Julian (1899-1975) first synthesized the drug physostigmine, previously only available from its natural source, the Calabar bean. His pioneering research led to the process that made physostigmine readily available for the treatment of glaucoma. It was the first of Julian’s lifetime of achievements in the chemical synthesis of commercially important natural products.

Percy L. Julian and Chemistry at DePauw University
The early 1930s was a time of great chemical research productivity at DePauw. It was in this decade that William M. Blanchard, Dean of the University, hired Percy Julian as a research fellow. Blanchard, who also served as head of the chemistry department, had been Julian's mentor during his undergraduate years at DePauw. Julian had received a Ph.D. degree in Vienna in 1931 and was in need of a position in which he could continue his research career. The DePauw chemistry program he joined in 1933 had roots that extended back to 1839 when the university was Asbury College and chemistry was offered as a natural science course taught by the president, Matthew Simpson. Chemistry became a distinct department in 1881 under the direction of Phillip S. Baker. The department prospered and a chemistry major was established in 1896. Percy Julian graduated from this program in 1920.

As a research fellow from 1932 to 1935, Julian, working with his colleague from Vienna, Josef Pikl, and several DePauw students, produced a phenomenal number of high-quality research papers. One such paper appeared in the April 1935 issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. This paper, entitled "Studies in the Indole Series V. The Complete Synthesis of Physostigmine (Eserine)," which explained how Julian synthesized physostigmine, is undoubtedly the most significant chemical research publication to come from DePauw. The student and faculty collaborative approach, promoted by Julian, has continued to the present, and today most of the research at DePauw is done in collaboration with students.

Physostigmine is a parasympathomimetic, specifically, a reversible cholinesterase inhibitor which effectively increases the concentration of acetylcholine at the sites of cholinergic transmission. Physostigmine is used to treat glaucoma. Source: Drug Bank

Percy L. Julian and the Synthesis of Physostigmine

American Chemical Society

National Historic Chemical Landmark

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