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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Percy Julian


We call it the “Boob Tube” for a reason. Far too much of the fare streamed via electrons directly to our eyeballs is simply mush (at best). Every now and then, though, there comes a program that makes our (OK, OK, MY) synapses snap to attention. And so it was when I came to watch a PBS Nova presentation entitled “Forgotten Genius”.

I had NO idea. In 1972, I spent the year studying organic chemistry.
I had NO idea that a man considered by many to be the world’s greatest chemist lived and worked mere miles from my basement apartment/hovel. That man was Percy Julian.

Doctor Percy Julian.

If only had I known. If only this student of science had known (a biologist who actually minored in chemistry), that one of the most incredible chemists that humanity had EVER produced, was living and working just a few miles away...I would have made a pilgrimage to his door. Fallen to my knees. Kissed the hand that held so many beakers that changed the world, made life better for countless humans and alleviated the suffering of millions.

I had NO idea. In 1972, as I struggled to fathom the intricacies of organic chemistry, Percy Julian had already fathomed a great many. He was the grandson of slaves. His story is of the indefatigable human spirit. His story is of the mind’s genius, the heart’s fallibility and greatness, the grandeur of vision, the challenge of entrepreneurship and the destructive power of blatant bigotry.

He died of cancer in 1975.

DOCTOR Percy Julian. I had NO idea. He changed the world for the better in countless ways. He was a genius denied early opportunity to flourish here in America. He had to move to Vienna, Austria to pursue knowledge and erudition. An academic pursuit denied here, for the most part, to folks of "color".

Dr. Percy Julian, a boy-child who witnessed lynchings, a brilliant student denied a higher education (here in the US of A), a man who overcame far too many obstacles for any man to plausibly overcome...obstacles that destroyed far too many worthy souls.

I wish I had known. I wish that my professors, in 1972, had told me of Dr. Percy Julian’s achievements. My professors were silent. Meanwhile, Dr. Julian’s home in Oak Park, Illinois had been fire-bombed twice. He had been denied countless times in countless ways simply on the basis of the pigmentation of his skin.

Despite that, despite ALL that, Dr. Julian Percy endured, prevailed, achieved.

He was admitted to the National Academy of Science a year after I had earned my Bachelors. He was the first African-American to be so honored. It’s safe to say (absolutely guaranteed) that I will never be the recipient of such accolades. That’s OK by me. I’m no Percy Julian.

I’m not one to advocate that you, the Dear Reader, spent two hours watching a TV program that I found compelling. This is a first, for me. But...trust me on this...I truly hope you will take the time to watch this particular program. Take from it what you will. There’s a great deal of fertile ground. Are you longing for a hero? You’ll find one. Are you a science nerd? You’ll be satisfied. Are you an entrepreneur? You’ll find succor. Do you care to learn about Jim Crow? You’ll learn enough to weep. Do you believe in the majesty of the human spirit? You will find reassurance.

Dr. Percy Julian. I wish I could have shaken your hand or, better yet, hugged you.

Tear stream down my cheeks as my finger moves to strike the “Publish Post” tab. Yes, I was THAT moved by what I learned.

* * *

11 Comments:

Blogger June Calender said...

Don't have a TV -- only when I hear of such shows do I almost wish I had one stashed away somewhere -- but that would be as impossible as stashing away a good chocolate bar.

Tue Feb 02, 08:50:00 PM  
Blogger Jonas said...

Ah, June, you remind me so much of my most beloved professor, Dr. Willey. He didn't own a television, either.

But...this is the 21st century. You and I have 'puters. We can stream programs such as this.

I hope you do.

I'm on a crusade. I hope EVERYONE will come to have at least a passing familiarity with a MOST incredible human being.

Tue Feb 02, 09:03:00 PM  
Blogger Ponita in Real Life said...

I have bookmarked that site, Jonas, and will definitely check it out when I have the time. (It's after midnight and I just got home from work, so now is not it.)

I sucked at chemistry, both in high school and university, but adored biology. Thank goodness there wasn't much chemistry in nursing... between that and math - I would have flunked out for sure!

Thanks for the passionate plug!

Wed Feb 03, 12:36:00 AM  
Blogger Cheesy said...

I will for sure try to catch it.. BIL will love to see it I am sure.. a true science geek and PBS whore.

Wed Feb 03, 07:25:00 AM  
Blogger deb said...

Organic chemistry was my Waterloo, same for gravimetric stoichiometry.

You might enjoy the book Outliers by Malcom Gladwell, it's along the same lines.

Wed Feb 03, 08:24:00 AM  
Blogger Kass said...

You've peaked my interest. I've been slammed for the past several days moving my mom into assisted living, but I'll be back to look at the video. Thanks.

Wed Feb 03, 10:26:00 AM  
Blogger Gabriela Abalo said...

After reading your post I definitely got interested on trying to know who Percy Julia was. I'm in Zambia so I don't think I can get a chance to watch the program you recommended. But thanks to the wonder of internet I will be able to research everything about what it sounds to be a great human being. Thank for sharing with such passion.

loveNlight
Gabi.

Thu Feb 04, 12:23:00 AM  
Blogger rebecca said...

I'll be sure to check it out. Thanks for posting it.

Fri Feb 05, 08:51:00 AM  
Blogger Stephanie said...

Wow, what a wonderful story. I'll have to check it out. PBS has some great programs and series. I'm in the mood to be inspired.

Fri Feb 05, 03:19:00 PM  
Blogger Jonas said...

It took me a while (me...not being the brightest bulb in the candelabra), to realize that PBS aired this particular program during Black History Month.

But...it's more than a snippet o' Black History (although I gotta say, the racial element stands out in stark relief).

Dr. Percy Julian's story is of the indomitable human spirit.

I choose to celebrate the man. Not because of his pigmentation...but for the majesty of his mind.

We've only to scratch beneath the surface to discover the human being beneath.

Perhaps this program will not be aired in your locale. Pity.

Methinks you can stream the video from one source or another.

Me hopes you will.

Mon Feb 08, 07:19:00 PM  
Blogger prashant said...

that would be as impossible as stashing away a good chocolate bar.

Work from home India

Wed Feb 10, 12:47:00 AM  

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