Percy Julian: The Synthetic Cortisone Alchemist1
Born in Alabama during segregation, Percy Julian became one of the first Black Americans to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry. He rose to prominence for his work on natural products. In 1935, he and his team synthesized physostigmine, which is a glaucoma treatment that was only available from the Calabar bean plant. During World War II, Dr. Julian tackled the critical challenge of synthesizing cortisone, a lifesaving steroid used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and previously extracted from animal bile. His innovative process not only made the drug cheaper and accessible but also opened doors for the synthesis of other vital hormones—he also developed methods for producing progesterone and other sex hormones.
Marie Maynard Daly: Unraveling the Mysteries of Cholesterol2
Marie Maynard Daly made history as the first Black woman to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry. Her research focused on cholesterol, sugars, and proteins and, through her meticulous studies, she identified various types of cholesterol and their distinct behaviors, laying the foundation for future diagnostic and treatment breakthroughs. Dr. Daly was a professor for many years at various universities and supported programs to increase minority students’ enrollment in graduate science programs and the field of medicine.
James Andrew Harris: Co-discovering New Elements3
Despite facing racial prejudice in the 1960s, James Andrew Harris carved his path in nuclear chemistry. As a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, he collaborated with other scientists to explore the frontiers of the periodic table. Harris co-discovered two new elements – element 104, Rutherfordium, and element 105, Dubnium – becoming the first Black American to discover an element. He dedicated much of his life to helping recruit Black American children to pursue science and engineering at schools and universities across the nation.
These are just a few examples of the legacy that Black chemists have had on the field of chemistry. Today, many organizations are working to enhance diversity in the workforce, including through programs like the Future of STEM Scholars Initiative, which provides $40,000 scholarships to students studying STEM fields at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.