The story of chemist Percy Julian, including his scientific accomplishments and the racism that threatened his career and his life, are spotlighted in the Nova documentary series “Forgotten Genius,” streaming throughout Black History Month. According to an article from the Chicago Tribune, Julian’s work with soybeans, which led to a protein used in firefighting foam and synthetics for whole families of steroids, is referred to in the documentary as “Nobel Laureate stuff.”
The 2007 documentary is reportedly being rebroadcast in an effort to recognize the impact of African-Americans in science at a time when work continues to ensure the field is more diverse and inclusionary. Julian, who had over 100 patents, worked in a Glidden paint factory when universities wouldn’t take a chance on him, according to the article. His innovations reportedly made him a millionaire, yet he received death threats and his suburban Chicago home was firebombed. His work synthesizing the glaucoma drug physostigmine was included by the American Chemical Society in 1999 in its top 25 achievements in the history of chemistry.
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