Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Forgotten Genius

Recently, Nova aired a program on Percy Julian. Julian was a black organic chemist who overcame everything blacks had to overcome in the early 1900's and went on to enjoy an extremely successful career as a chemist. He did remarkable work on steriods.

The Nova program was well done. I would have enjoyed a little more actual chemistry, but obviously the show was meant for a broader audience.

Stories like this always make me wonder, how many brilliant minds have we missed, lost or wasted because of bigotry, hatred and just plain stupidity. As brilliant as Julian was, he was certainly limited in what he accomplished. Not by his ability, but by the world he lived in. He did all of his steroid work at a paint company for crying out loud. Give this guy an endowed chair at a leading university and the world could be different today.

If you get the chance, watch a rerun or get the DVD. It's worth it.


Matt Jenks said...

Curses! You scooped me on this one. I caught the same show the other night when I was flipping through the channels headed toward Discovery for Dirty Jobs. I was caught up by the talk of "compounds" and "reactions", so I watched. The more I watched, the more fascinated and upset I became when he wouldn't get hired. He was definitely a brilliant mind, and one thing that seemed to strike me was that he didn't seem overly bitter about being turned down time and time again based on the color of his skin. He finally got a break and went into the lab and kicked ass. Like you said, the documentary was well done, and he is truly a man that all chemists can admire, regardless of race.

Chemgeek said...

You would think, the synthesis of physostigmine in 1935 should guarantee meaningful employment. But, 1935 was obviously much different than 2007.

Matt Jenks said...

Yeah, I was upset that the homestate (through Depauw University) was the beginning of his troubles. At least they had him there, I guess, which was pretty major for the early 30s. I did think there was some serious justification when his first job had him as the director of the lab, not just a senior scientist.

Like you said, 1935 was much different. I also like how they referenced the melting point of the originally-published material as "being able to melt in your armpit", with some paraphrasing in there.