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Honoring a pioneer chemist

Julian achieved in face of racism

Percy Julian's work led directly to the steroids that treat rheumatoid arthritis. Percy Julian's work led directly to the steroids that treat rheumatoid arthritis. (AP Images)

It's telling that, with a few notable exceptions, our society lionizes athletes and shunts scientists to the sidelines. We revere Jackie Robinson , as we should. But no one has written a biography about Percy Julian , the pioneering black chemist whose accomplishments, in the face of segregation, were no less profound.

"Forgotten Genius" is a fitting title, then, for the two-hour NOVA documentary that premieres at 8 tonight on Channel 2. But this is as much a story of 20th-century America: an indictment of the racist educational establishment, and a study of the remarkable blend of ambition and self-confidence that helped one man to rise above it.

Even if you understand the outlines of Jim Crow, it's hard not to be shocked at the details of Julian's story. As an undergraduate at DePauw University in the 1920s, he had to live in a fraternity house basement and perform chores for his white classmates. At Harvard, where he earned his master's degree, his research funding was cut off because no one would accept a black teaching assistant. Even after he had established himself as a successful chemist and businessman, his home, in a mostly-white Illinois suburb, faced bomb threats and arson attempts.

Actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson plays Julian here, recounting his struggles in a sometimes-haughty voice. For the most part, the choice to dramatize is effective, and Santiago -Hudson bears a decent resemblance to the handsome chemist with the complex personality. Julian isn't sainted here; his personal life sometimes led to career troubles, and he was cocky enough to challenge some of the world's best-known scientists. But he had a keen sense of risk and reward; he knew he had to make big splashes to maintain a career. And his science was always unimpeachable.

This is the hardest concept to relate on film. It's hard to make the slow scientific process feel intense, and we're treated to countless scenes of flames, bubbling liquids, and Santiago-Hudson rubbing his chin. Talking heads explain how molecules work, but from a distance, it all looks like alchemy.

The results, though, speak for themselves. Julian's work, which centered on re-creating the chemicals found in plants, led directly to the steroids that treat rheumatoid arthritis, and indirectly to the birth control pill. It's a giant legacy, and it deserves to be remembered.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

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