Today's Google Doodle Honors Pioneering Medicinal Chemist

Apr 11 2014, 6:16pm CDT | by

Today's Google Doodle Honors Pioneering Medicinal Chemist
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

It’s not every day that you wake up, turn on the laptop, and see chemical structures in the doodle on the Google search landing page. Especially those of drugs isolated or made from plants, the subject of my own academic research for more than 20 years.

Yet today, the Google Doodle marks the 115th anniversary of the birth of “The Forgotten Genius,” synthetic medicinal chemist, Dr. Percy Julian. Treatments for glaucoma and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as oral contraceptives and testosterone gel, are among the drugs made directly by Julian, or were indirectly enabled by the chemistry in one of his 160 U.S. patents.

I was also instantly intrigued by how the Google artist, or doodler, worked through the process of today’s design. Suspecting they were not an organic chemist, I inquired directly with Google and provide the backstory toward the end of this article.

So, who is he and what are those chemical structures?

Julian is one of the most renowned chemists of the 20th century, or at least he is now that his work is recognized. He was the third African-American person to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry and, later,  was the second African-American scientist elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, just after the UC-Berkeley statistician, David Blackwell. His story was told the 2007 NOVA documentary, Forgotten Genius. I recommend that everyone purchase or rent the DVD, but the one hour and 52-minute program can be viewed in its entirety by clicking on the green “Watch This Program” box at the show’s NOVA website.

In a less scholarly but still reverent manner, Julian’s story was told in a 2011 Cracked article by Eric Yosomono, “5 Important People Who Were Screwed Out Of History Books: #2.The Man Who Invented Half of What’s in Your Medicine Cabinet”:

If you’ve ever used birth-control pills, or had asthma, arthritis, hemorrhoids, eczema, allergies, chronic lung illness, cancer or weak little baby muscles, you can thank Percy Julian for inventing steroids. It was one of the most crucial advancements in modern medicine — there probably isn’t a single person reading this who hasn’t been treated with a steroid at some point.

Born Percy Lavon Julian in 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama, the grandson of former slaves. His mother, Elizabeth, was a schoolteacher who met his father, James, while they were at the Lincoln Normal School, now Alabama State University. The normal schools were primarily institutions that taught high school graduates to become schoolteachers, and schools like Lincoln educated Negros of the day to teach other Black students in the segregated education system.

Serendipitously, Percy’s father was offered assistance by his teacher to attend DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. James declined the offer, choosing instead to go to work immediately on the railroad for the U.S Postal System. But according to DePauw historians, the same teacher, Joan Stuart, offered Percy the same opportunity years later when he too attended Lincoln.

Influenced by his parents strong belief in the value of an education, young Percy accepted the opportunity and embarked on remedial studies to get up to speed to attend DePauw. From the DePauw history,

As his train left Montgomery for DePauw, Percy Julian watched his family standing on the station’s platform. His grandfather, a former slave freed by the Thirteenth Amendment, waved a hand missing two fingers, cut off as punishment for learning to write. It was a painful reminder of the past for Julian, and an image that would inspire him in the years ahead. Hungry and nervous when he stepped off the train in Greencastle, Julian was met by the outstretched hand of Kenneth C. Hogate ’18, who would later serve as editor of The Wall Street Journal. It was the first white hand that Julian ever shook. Son of the local newspaper editor who, at Joan Stuart’s insistence, had pulled strings to get Julian admitted to DePauw, Hogate helped Julian settle on campus.

But all was not rainbows and unicorns for Julian. For example, he and other black students were not permitted to live in the dormitories and finding off-campus housing was difficult. The Julian family ended up moving to Greencastle later so that Julian and his siblings could attend DePauw while living at home.

Julian did particularly well in chemistry on his way to graduating as valedictorian in the Class of 1920. He taught chemistry for a couple of years at Fisk University, the historically-black college/university in Nashville. But he was denied access to the science library at the much better-equipped Vanderbilt University.

In 1923, he earned a fellowship to conduct graduate work in chemistry at Harvard, but was only permitted to earn a master’s degree. The administration withdrew his teaching assistantship, arguing that Harvard students from the South would not tolerate being taught by a Negro, no matter how accomplished.

Julian then taught chemistry at West Virginia State University and Howard University before receiving a Rockefeller Fellowship to complete his Ph.D. work at the University of Vienna with a famous Austrian natural products chemist named Ernst Späth, the first scientist to synthesize the naturally-occurring psychoactive compound, mescaline.

At the time, scientists were interested in the biological effects of naturally-occurring chemicals called alkaloids. Many readers drink one every morning, and throughout the day, in the form of caffeine. Hopefully, fewer of you are using another one, nicotine. Other alkaloids include morphine, cocaine, and strychnine.

Julian’s experience in Europe was far different than in the U.S. where his skin color didn’t hold him back from travels and experiences not common for minorities in the 1930s United States. In fact, many of our greatest jazz musicians, many African-American, spent considerable time in Europe then and in the years following because racism was less pronounced there.

Professionally, Professor Späth called Julian, “an extraordinary student, his like I have not seen before in my career as a teacher [English translation from German].”

Julian’s “landmark” work

Julian returned to Howard University but was derailed by academic politics, allegations of a sexual tryst with a colleague’s wife, and the publication of racy letters he wrote to colleagues while in Vienna.

Fortunately, friends helped him get back on his feet at his alma mater, DePauw, and he married his wife, Anna Roselle. However, Julian wasn’t accepted as a full faculty member but rather as a research fellow, serving as an undergraduate mentor in the laboratory. But Julian was able to bring over one of his colleagues from Vienna, Josef Pikl. Together, they did truly landmark research, synthesizing the drug physostigmine (fye-zo-stig-meen) to treat glaucoma. That’s the chemical structure on the right side of today’s Google Doodle. Physostigmine occurs in nature in the Calabar bean but isn’t present in economically-feasible quantities for industrial extraction.

Not only did Julian and Pikl synthesize physostigmine in a process that could be scaled up for industry, but they also proved a famous British scientist’s synthesis incorrect: Sir Robert Robinson, 1947 Nobel laureate in chemistry. So significant was this work that the American Chemical Society dedicated the site of their DePauw laboratory as a National Historic Chemical Landmark in 1999 and named the work one of the top 25 accomplishments in chemistry.

Julian later joined the Glidden Company where he worked on chemicals from the soybean, particularly as a source for steroid hormone drugs that were finding their way into practice. In 1949, Mayo Clinic physician, Dr. Philip Hench, showed the remarkable effectiveness of cortisone in treating rheumatoid arthritis. Cortisone is the chemical structure on the right side of today’s Google Doodle.

At the time, cortisone was difficult to make and could only be isolated in small amount from the tissues of slaughtered cattle. Julian observed a happy accident where a vat of soya oil at Glidden had gotten contaminated with water. The substance that precipitated out of the oil gave Julian the starting material to make cortisone in 1950 (the. Hench shared the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine that year, but Julian’s work was not included in his Nobel lecture.

Julian’s relative financial success led his family to move in 1951 to the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, where they were the first African-American family. Their house was fire-bombed, not once but twice, but the Julians were well-supported by their neighbors. Julian’s surviving daughter still lives there today. We were unsuccessful in reaching her today for comment on the Google Doodle.

After Glidden lost interest in the commercial production of steroids, Julian left to start his own laboratories in 1953 where he tried to compete in the U.S., Mexico and Central America with major pharmaceutical companies for the production of steroids like progesterone, one component of oral contraceptives that were to come in the 1960s.

While he was successful for a time, Syntex was essentially creating a monopoly for procuring the building blocks of steroids from the Mexican yam, a situation that led him to testify before a U.S. Senate committee with officials from two other companies. He later sold Julian Laboratories to SmithKline & French in 1961. Up until his death in 1975, Julian was an outspoken civil rights activist and promoter of training African-American scientists.

The backstory of today’s Google Doodle

While the artist (called a doodler) who created today’s Google Doodle was not available for comment, Google press officer Krisztina Radosavljevic-Szilagyi was kind enough to give me some background on the design process, information that should appear on Google’s Doodle site later tonight or tomorrow together with drawings throughout the development of the final image used today. Here is a substantial excerpt:

“It’s no scientific revelation that it’s the experiences from our everyday lives that inform our work, and in Dr. Julian’s case, he used these experiences, overcoming tremendous challenges and racial barriers (and even a couple happy accidents) to become one of the most renowned and highly respected chemists in history.”

“Visually, I was presented with a familiar challenge: to create something fun and engaging for us non-science types (I confess to finding a way of skipping chemistry in high school), while still calling attention to Julian’s key achievements in an appropriate (i.e., correct and validated!) way. Before getting too far into the research, I sketched thumbnails of a common association – that of a chemist in a lab full of beakers and tubes.”

“As I read more about his work, I became fascinated with his process in the specific field of organic chemistry, and how he discovered ways to rare and exotic components and synthesize them or discover alternate organic substances in place of more cost-prohibitive resources.”

“However, I decided clever metaphors (or just really bad puns) wasn’t really the best way to go. But I did want to maintain a lighter graphical treatment, hopefully appealing to young future scientists. Combining that aesthetic with something resembling diagrams out of a school textbook was the direction I took, which felt appropriate considering the obstacles Julian personally overcame in receiving his own education.

“Happy 115th birthday to the NOT Forgotten Genius, Dr. Percy Lavon Julian!”

 

 

 
 

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