Pioneering African American chemist Percy Julian combated discrimination in his field his entire life in the U.S. But from 1929 to 1931, he found the freedom to realize one of his dreams – in Vienna.
In the foyer of the University of Vienna, Chemistry Department stands a bust students walk by every day. It’s not unusual to find such figures hovering in different corners of institutions – memorials to time-honored forerunners. They are often taken for granted – how they got there in the first place, even more so.
This particular bust of Ernst Späth, an esteemed organic chemistry professor who died in 1946, has a unique origin: it was commissioned by Percy Lavon Julian, an African American Rockefeller fellowship recipient who came to Vienna from 1929 to 1931 to earn his doctorate and thrived under Späth’s tutelage. Julian went on to become a pioneer in the field of organic chemistry in the U.S.
Späth had a reputation for being a strict and merciless educator, but referred to Julian as “an extraordinary student, the likes of which I had never seen before in my teaching career!” Indeed, Julian was no ordinary protégé, as the stakes that led him to study in Vienna could not have been higher. Before arriving there at the age of 30, he had already broken down many cultural and societal barriers in his own country and community.
Born in Montgomery, Alabama, the capital of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, Julian – descended from slaves – was the first person in his family to complete high school and college (blacks in the South were typically only permitted to attend school up to eighth grade at the time). He was also the first black student to attend his university (DePauw University in Indiana), and graduated as class valedictorian. Julian went on to complete two master’s degrees before almost securing a place at Harvard University to complete his PhD until that prestigious university decided that a black student could not be given such an opportunity.
Getting the Rockefeller Fellowship allowed the ambitious Julian to thwart such hurdles and brought him to Vienna, which he chose specifically due to Späth’s research on alkaloids and also because Vienna was considered the center of natural products chemistry at the time. Not only was Julian able to reach his goal of being the only third African American to gain a doctorate in chemistry, but equally significant was the unprecedented freedom that Europe granted him. For the first time in his life, he was allowed to exist and move freely in this new environment – institutionalized segregation between blacks and whites was non-existent in a society where there were virtually no black people. Julian was allowed to flourish and thrive to the fullest extent of his ability and potential – which was limitless.
Julian was not only accepted and liberated in Vienna, he even gained status and popularity. In Viennese society at the time, Julian was a novelty – for many, he was the first black person they had ever set eyes on. Charming, handsome, engaging, and brilliant, he established friends and colleagues easily and quickly. He learned German quickly, even the Viennese dialect.
He also had the means to access, or at least appeared to demonstrate, financial advantages, which was perhaps exaggerated by the fact that the Austrian economy was in a state of recession at the time. He had crates of ground glassware shipped in from the U.S., which was not typically available in the university labs in Europe. He was able to afford box seats at the opera and invited friends to join him. He lived and entertained guests in a “palatial” apartment on Liechtensteinstraße. He was able to move in elite social circles, partly due to befriending Edwin Mosettig, whose mother was a well-known musician at the time. And according to letters he wrote to a colleague back in the U.S., he had many female companions, although this never interfered with his studies – he unfailingly showed up to the lab in the mornings at 7:55 on the dot.
This lifestyle was a far cry from his experiences in his undergraduate years at DePauw. Even though it was the first place where he shook hands with a white person, he initially struggled to find somewhere to eat for the first day and half and eventually was permitted to sleep in the attic of a fraternity house in exchange for performing household tasks for his fellow lodgers.
After earning his doctorate in Vienna, Julian returned to the U.S. with increased self-confidence and high hopes, even bringing back an Austrian colleague with him, Josef Pikl, to be his partner in research. With Pikl’s support, Julian successfully challenged the findings of the most renowned organic chemist at Oxford University at the time, Robert Robinson, by synthesizing a compound called physostigmine, used to treat glaucoma – a bold risk as if it had failed, it would have ended Julian’s career. Instead, it effectively put Julian on the map of great chemical achievements.
But even though the papers that emerged from this work gave him international recognition, Julian was still denied any faculty positions at non-black universities, including his alma mater, DePauw. When both he and Pikl turned to careers in industry by interviewing at DuPont, the leading chemical corporation at the time, only Pikl was offered a position.
But as he had always done, Julian persisted and eventually became the Director of Research at the Glidden Company, a paint manufacturer, and then went on to found his own company where he hired many fellow black chemists. In his lifetime, he obtained more then 130 patents and his groundbreaking research led to the development of more affordable ways to produce cortisone and progesterone, among many other breakthroughs.
Despite Julian’s remarkable achievements, the shadow of discrimination never quite dissipated. After achieving enough security to buy a house for his family in the prestigious Oak Park neighborhood in Illinois in 1950, it was firebombed right before they moved in. He became more involved in the Civil Rights Movement in his later years.
Julian’s mentor Späth died in 1946 under conditions of extreme poverty, despite his renown and status. Julian returned to Vienna, not only to contribute the bust but also to pay for his beloved mentor’s funeral. Vienna was known as many things during the time Julian was there: the capital of a newly formed republic, a cultural and intellectual hotspot coming to the end of its glory, an unstable interwar-period city in transition. Even darker times lay ahead, but for one young man, a newly found freedom in this city made the future seem bright.
This was written and researched with the support of a Research and Journalism Stipend from the Austrian Academy of Sciences