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Black History Month: Celebrating Scientists

In February we celebrate the African diaspora including African-American history. Follow Eureka in its month-long salute to black scientists, starting with pioneers in chemistry and the environment.

Pioneering chemist Percy Lavon Julian

Percy Lavon Julian, pioneering chemistSteroid chemist Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975) is known for figuring out how to synthesize medicinal compounds from plant sources, paving they way for large-scale manufacturing of certain drugs. In the 1930s he synthesized a drug used to treat glaucoma, and later developed industrial-scale chemical synthesis of the human hormones, progesterone and testosterone from plant lipids. His work laid the foundation for the steroid drug industry’s production of cortisone, other corticosteroids, and birth control pills. Percy was born in 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama, the son of a railway clerk and the grandson of slaves. He overcame Jim Crow segregation and a daunting series of racial obstacles to earn his college degree from DePauw University and advanced degrees from Harvard and University of Vienna. He was the first African American chemist elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In the latter stage of his career he started his own company, became one of the first black millionaires, and then sold it to form a nonprofit organization. You can learn more about Percy at the American Chemical Society and Biography.com .

 

Environmental activist Wangari Muta Maathai

Wangari Maathi, Green Belt Movement, 200x300Wangari Muta Maathai (1940-2011), a social, environmental and political activist, and the first African woman to win a Nobel Prize, is founder of the Green Belt Movement. The environmental, non-governmental organization focuses on the planting of trees, environmental conservation and women’s rights. A trained biologist, Wangari became interested in environmental restoration during post-graduate work in Pittsburgh, but her Green Belt Movement began in earnest in 1977 when she planted a handful of seedlings in her back yard in Kenya to fight erosion. She transformed her own experience into a movement to plant trees across Kenya, which in turn created firewood for fuel and jobs for women. The Green Belt Movement has planted more than 30 million trees and helped to employ more than 900,000 women. Wangari was also a political thorn in the side of the Kenyan government—she led the fight, for instance, against plans to build a skyscraper in one of Nairobi’s central parks. In 2004, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for what the Nobel Committee called her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” You can learn more about Wangari and the Green Belt Movement here.