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|Posted February 8, 2007|
Reclaiming a Black Research Scientist's Forgetten Legacy
Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest
|Percy L. Julian (1899-1975, above, a pioneering black research chemist.|
By FELICIA R. LEE
ON the day that Percy L. Julian graduated at the top of his class at DePauw University, his great-grandmother bared her shoulders and, for the first time, showed him the deep scars that remained from a beating she had received as a slave during the last days of the Civil War. She then clutched his Phi Beta Kappa key in her hand and said, This is worth all the scars.
Every February, when the curtain lifts on Black History Month, the cast of highlighted lives is often familiar: a Martin Luther King Jr., a Katherine Dunham. But the documentary Forgotten Genius, to be broadcast tonight as part of the Nova science series on PBS, dramatizes the story of Mr. Julian, a largely neglected black chemist who was nonetheless one of the most important scientists of the 20th century. He is played by the Tony Award-winning actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and the moment with his great-grandmother is but one in a film full of the echoes of the countrys painful racial history.
The Nova filmmakers effort to revive Mr. Julians legacy is not only riveting, but also one of the most ambitious projects in the 34-year history of Nova. His work included discoveries in the synthesis of cortisone, an anti-inflammatory used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and many other conditions. In 1999 the American Chemical Society recognized his synthesis of physostigmine, a glaucoma drug, as one of the top 25 achievements in the history of American chemistry. He was the first black chemist ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
Its been just wonderful, Paula S. Apsell, the senior executive producer for Nova, said of making the two-hour film. Its that delicious feeling you get when you know youre on to something away from the crowd.
Because there was no full biography of Mr. Julian, Ms. Apsell said, about four years went into original research on his story: finding his unpublished autobiography, gathering speeches in which he talked about his life and work, conducting oral histories around the country with those who knew him. The project director was Stephen Lyons, an independent producer who was a co-writer and co-producer of the film with Llewellyn M. Smith (an associate producer for Eyes on the Prize). Mr. Smith is the director of Forgotten Genius.
Narrated by the actor Courtney B. Vance (Ron Carver on Law & Order: Criminal Intent), Forgotten Genius relies on a combination of interviews and dramatic re-enactments. Early on, viewers see the sheer odds against Mr. Julian, who was born in Montgomery, Ala., in 1899 and died in 1975.
In one scene he is 12, walking in the Alabama woods, when he discovers a young lynching victim hanging from a tree. He reaches out and touches the body. The adult Julian comments, He didnt look like a criminal; he just looked like a scared boy.
Mr. Smith said, I think in the film theres a view of him as a whole human being, and thats unusual for scientists.
Mr. Julians name came up around 1998, Ms. Apsell recalled, when Nova sought to inject some diversity into a series about the lives of scientists, profiles that had included Albert Einstein, Galileo and Isaac Newton.
The dramatic spine of Forgotten Genius has Mr. Julian telling his story in flashback before an audience, documenting a life in which accomplishment and oppression took turns.
Harvard awarded him a masters degree but would not support him in getting his doctorate (he earned it at the University of Vienna); potential employers snubbed him. (We didnt know you were a Negro, the DuPont Company told him after inviting him for an interview.)
After doors slammed and opportunities vanished, Mr. Julian landed a job at Howard University, only to become enmeshed in a sex scandal that ended his employment there: He and his future wife were accused of having an affair while she was still married to one of his colleagues.
He spent years teaching at DePauw, in Greencastle, Ind., where a building is now named in his honor, but was denied a faculty position. After almost two decades at the Glidden company, where his research made possible a fire-retardant foam widely used in World War II and the mass production of synthetic progesterone, the company told him to concentrate on things like nonsplattering shortening.
By the time he became successful enough to move with his wife and two children into Oak Park, Ill., a mostly white Chicago suburb, their home was the target of a bomb and a fire.
|A job interview at DuPont ended with, 'We didn't know you were a Negro.'|
The good side was, as a kid I got to spend more time with my dad and stay up late, because wed sit in the tree outside, recalls Percy Julian Jr., now a civil rights lawyer in Madison, Wis. Hed sit there with a shotgun. And wed talk about why someone would want to do this, and how wrong it was and how stupid it was.
Mr. Santiago-Hudson, who is also a playwright, said the project resonated with his desire to mirror the black American journey. He recalled eagerly reading boxes of material as the filmmakers did their research.
I became Percy Julian, he said. These are the stories I want to tell. They straighten us out in a society where the people who write the history books want the heroes to look like them.
Mr. Julian is certainly a hero by the end of the film, though he laments, I feel that my own country robbed me of the chance for some of the great experiences that I would have liked to live through. By 1953 he had established Julian Laboratories (which he sold for more than $2 million in 1961), and he later formed Julian Research Institute, a nonprofit organization. He won accolades for his support of the civil rights struggle and was able to hire many black scientists and inspire many more.
One was James Shoffner, an organic chemistry researcher, who in Forgotten Genius compares Mr. Julian to Jackie Robinson as a barrier-breaker. Mr. Shoffner, 79, said he grew up reading about Mr. Julian in the so-called Negro press and met him in the late 1950s at a meeting of the American Chemical Society. He helped the society organize a symposium on Mr. Julian in 1999 and aided the Nova effort.
Why he was not well known has to do with a series of factors, the first being the color of his skin, Mr. Shoffner said in a telephone interview. Also, he did his science in a small liberal arts college in the middle of the country, and he did his science in industry. Those are two places not thought of as producing world-class science.
Already, because of the interest generated by the making of the film, Gerry Walanka, a Chicago lawyer and businessman, has begun a fund called In Search of Genius Foundation to help minority students interested in science. We want to build on his story in a way that motivates young people, Mr. Walanka said. Nova is turning over more than 2,000 pages of transcripts from the film to an archive of the Julian familys choice so that there can finally be a chance for a scholarly look at Mr. Julian.
It certainly gives hope to young people about what you can be if you never, ever, ever give up, Mr. Julians son said. That was the message our father gave us.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, TheArts, of Tuesday, February 6, 2007.
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