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Remembering a Genius

Remembering a Genius

Dr. Percy Julian was an award-winning chemist who broke racial barriers throughout the 20th century and became only the second Black scientist elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Now a PBS docu-drama, “Forgotten Genius,” is reviving his legacy and providing a more thorough account of his life, which was not without personal and professional obstacles.

The four-hour “Forgotten Genius” draws from Julian’s unpublished autobiography, speeches and interviews with friends. It depicts Julian as passionate, dedicated, strong-willed and unafraid, even sitting in a tree outside his house with a shotgun to ward off the Ku Klux Klan.
A grandson of slaves, Julian was born in Montgomery, Ala., in 1899. He was 12 years old when he came upon a lynched body hanging in a tree. “He just looked like a scared boy,” he would later say about the victim. He went on to graduate from Harvard University in 1923, and taught at Howard and DePauw universities. However, it was in private industry where Julian made his mark, discovering a fire-retardant foam and the mass production of synthetic progestore. Along the way, he experienced racial discrimination by graduate schools and employers.

And although he persevered, eventually creating his own multimillion-dollar research laboratory, he said shortly before his death in 1975, “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.”

“Forgotten Genius” aired in February, but can be viewed online at wgbh/nova/julian.

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