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Published: Monday, 2/5/2001

Julian made life better for millions

George Washington Carver may be the most famous black scientist. Carver (1864-1943) won global acclaim for agricultural research. He invented peanut butter, hundreds of other new uses for the peanut, and modern crop rotation methods for abundant harvests.

Black History Month is a great time to meet a less familiar African-American scientist whose genius helped save millions of people from blindness, crippling due to arthritis, and other diseases.

Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975) was an organic chemist who in 1935 discovered the first way to make the anti-glaucoma drug physostigmine (fi-zoe-STIG-meen).

Glaucoma is a disease in which fluid builds up to harmful pressure inside the eyeball. Unless treated, the pressure can damage the optic nerve and cause blindness. Physostigmine reduces the pressure by letting fluid drain more easily from the eye.

People with glaucoma still take Julian's drug in prescription eye drops sold under brand names such as Eserine Salicylate, Eserine Sulfate, and Isopto Eserine.

Researchers also are studying physostigmine's effects in improving memory in older people. Experiments have shown that it improves short-term memory when given to people in a different form. Tacrine, the first drug approved for Alzheimer's disease, works the same way as physostigmine.

When Julian started work at DePauw University in the early 1930s, physostigmine could be obtained only by extracting it from its natural source, the calabar bean. That meant processing huge batches of beans to get a few drops of the drug - at great cost.

In three years of work, Julian developed the first “total synthesis” for the drug. In chemistry, total synthesis means making a drug from chemicals that can be bought from a supply house. It reduced the cost of physostigmine, and made the drug suitable for wide use.

Julian became research director at Glidden Co. in Chicago in 1936, and turned to a more difficult problem: finding an inexpensive way to make cortisone.

Mayo doctors first used cortisone in 1948 on a patient bedridden with the inflamed, swollen, painful joints of rheumatoid arthritis. Within a few days, she was out of bed and exercising. Demand for the drug skyrocketed.

But there was only one way to get cortisone - extract it from a natural source. That meant collecting and processing thousands of adrenal glands from cattle slaughtered at meat-packing plants. The glands had to be processed in a complicated way that made cortisone cost hundreds of dollars per dose.

By late 1949, Julian developed a way to make synthetic cortisone that was more affordable but just as effective as the natural product. Hydrocortisone is still made today in the same basic way.

Those two drugs were just the highlights of a career in which Julian received more than 100 patents and started his own business.

Julian did it all despite many barriers from racial discrimination in the scientific community and the rest of society.

Michael Woods is the Blade's science editor. Email him at mwoods@theblade.com.

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