Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975) was a pathbreaking and renowned African-American chemist who taught at Fisk University, West Virginia State College, Howard University, and DePauw University and worked in the private sector. After his aspirations to pursue postgraduate degrees had been frustrated multiple times in the United States, Julian received the opportunity to study for his PhD at the University of Vienna. He leapt at the chance, taking a break from his teaching at Howard, and wowed his supervisors and classmates, completing his degree in 1931.
While resident in Vienna, Julian maintained a correspondence with his assistant at Howard University, Robert (Bob) Thompson. These letters provide an intimate insight into Julian’s experiences in Vienna, both his academic successes and his engagements in Viennese society. Julian and Thompson later had a professional falling out that was markedly compounded by Julian’s affair with Thompson’s wife and led to Thompson’s firing and duelling lawsuits. In this context, Thompson released the correspondence, in part to embarrass his former mentor with details of his romantic escapades in Vienna but more so to damage his career through revelations of professional misconduct at Howard. The resulting scandal forced Julian to resign his teaching post there and led to his move to DePauw.
In the excerpt below, Julian recounts the pleasure he takes in Viennese social and cultural life, the freedom with which he can hang out with colleagues and friends and mingle with the opposite sex, all of which were a marked departure from experiences back home in the United States.
deutsch coming soon
October 9, 1929
And now a little news. I have the prettiest girl in all Vienna, the sister of one of my fellow Dissertanten. You have never gazed on such beauty. No lie. We have bargained a date every Friday night.
Monday night we were in the opera and heard Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” It was entrancingly beautiful. We went to the sweetest little wine cellar you ever say and drank until 3 o’clock in the morning. Edwin and I were all stewed and the girls were tripping the light fantastic quite lively.
I have more invitations to fellow companions’ houses than I can accept. Viennese are known for their hospitality, or what they call “Gemuetlichkeit.”
Last week I heard “Aida.” The opera here is the joy of existence. We had a loge (of course everyone was dressed) that would accommodate six, a dressing room combined–all for eight dollars, really less–fifty shillings (little over seven dollars).
We had a wonderful six-fifths of Champagn for about three dollars–the best of Champagne. And then we had Bordeaux, which of course was dirt cheap. I must have drunk a quart. This morning I could not fasten the pants of the trousers of my brown suit. I shall have to slow down.
I am ten years younger. It is many a year since I have been so happy and healthy. I eat like a dog (always did, I guess you are saying, damn you) and sleep like Rip Van Winkle.
Source: “Dr. Julian Tells More of Pretty Viennese,” The Afro-American (Washington, D.C.) (23 July 1932): 1.
Percy Lavon Julian is happy and healthy in Viennese society (1930) by Jeff Bowersox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://blackcentraleurope.com/who-we-are/.