Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Stunning "Nova" profile of Percy L. Julian

Pioneering research chemist Percy L. Julian (1899-1975). Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest

Watched an extraordinary 2-hour "Nova" tonight, "Forgotten Genius," about organic chemist Percy L. Julian, a pioneering black chemist who was one of the most important scientists of the 20th century. Here in Madison, the "forgotten" part of the title seems a bit excessive. The name is familiar here, because his son Percy Jr. is a prominent local civil rights attorney, as Doug Moe relates in the Capital Times.
Percy, who graduated from the UW Law School back in the '60s, is actually Percy Jr., and remarkable in his own right. He is one of the best civil rights attorneys Madison has ever had, which is another way of saying he has spent his life helping ordinary people stand up to power. Thirty-five years ago, Whitney Gould in this newspaper called Julian "the first man to whom young dissenters in this city turn for help."

Back in the Vietnam era, when state courts were looking at student anti-war demonstrators and seeing criminals, Julian did something nobody had thought of before. He took his young clients into federal court, where a judge, James Doyle, the current governor's dad, said that students have rights, too.
We soon learn that whatever we thought we knew, it was just the tip pf the iceberg. It's a remarkable program, beautifully produced. To begin with, it's a fascinating history of mid-century organic chemistry that really makes it come alive for the lay viewer -- at least enough to appreciate some of the magnitude of Jullian's achievements (among other things, he developed the production process that made cortisone an affordable drug for millions of arthritis sufferers). The period re-enactments with Tony Award-winning actor and playwright Ruben Santiago-Hudson portraying Julian are especially well done. It adds up to a powerful evocation of a man who achieved greatly against great odds, and could have achieved even more in a less racist society.
Percy Jr. told NOVA that his father was "a good person who never reached his potential. Who shot for the stars and came close. Who took advantage of the country's promise of equality, but was in some ways undone by the country's failure to live up to that promise."
Here's a link to the NYT story about the documentary, and the "Nova" website has a wealth of information. If you missed the show, a preview is up today. Starting tomorrow, they'll be streaming the program on the website.

1 comment:

Nadine said...

Your Madison-area readers will have several more opportunities to view "Forgotten Genius" on WHA-TV this week. According to the station's web site (www.wpt.org), the program will be show again at 10 p.m. Wednesday (2/7) and 7 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Thursday (2/8).

Percy Julian, Sr. served on the board of directors of Chicago's Roosevelt University, which was founded in 1945. He also must have been a supporter of the extraordinary Louis Sullivan-Dankmar Adler-designed Auditorium Theatre, which the university purchased in 1946 and eventually restored to its original grandeur. I remember seeing his name on a plaque in the theater during a visit many years ago. At that time, I was aware of the accomplishments of Percy Julian, Jr., but I knew nothing about his father. I made it a point to do some research when I returned home -- and that's when I learned about the accomplishments and contributions of Percy Julian, Sr. Thereafter, every time I visited the Auditorium Theatre, I made a point to visit that plaque. It's wonderful to see this "forgotten genius" honored in a way that will reach a much wider audience.