Percy Lavon Julian’s doctoral success in Vienna (1930)

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 trumpets his success in a public lecture on material from his doctoral research, “giving ’em Hell and not on toast.” He also recounts his Austrian instructors’ confusion over American racial codes that have limited his success and those of other African Americans, noting that he is tempted to stay where he is appreciated.

Jeff Bowersox

deutsch coming soon

Dec. 14, 1930.

Dear Bob:

Your letter you see has not yet left, because I wanted to add a few things …nd last week (you can now see how I work and give up everything for my work) everything went by the board for my colloquum. Now I have so many letters to write I have not the slightest idea when I can get through.

First of all let me acquaint you with my success. That was, as I may have told you, what we call here the “pre-Doctorat” speech. The Lecture Hall was packed (had been announced that a Negro perhaps, would hold a “pre-Doctorat” in the German language). All the Professors, Dozents and Assistants were in the first rows. Many of my Vienna friends were in the audience. Also two colored Americans. Drs. Hail and Beasley (Ned), the former a good friend of Tibbs and studying here this year (Medicine).

I began speaking at 6:30 and stopped two minutes after 7:30, true to my custom without a single note. And not once did I pause.

At the end, boy, it would have done your heart good. There was so much amazement and such wide open eyes! My Professor rushed to me with both hands, then stood up and gave me a eulogy the life of which I have never enjoyed. It was the greatest moment of my Life! Prof. Wegschreider said that few Germans could have handled such a difficult theme expressed in the “choicest flower of their language.” I was almost astounded myself, for once the first three introductory sentences were out, I forgot I had ever spoken any other language. and all the beautiful phrases I had ever read and heard in the language fell into my mouth. Herr Dozent Gross said I made only one mistake throughout the lecture, one time I said “der atom” instead of “das Atom.” That came about because carbon is “Der Kohlenstaff” [sic] and I intended most probably to say “der Kohlenstaff” [sic] and said “Der Kohlenstaffatom.” Boy, the two Negroes sat there with eyes as big as apples. The news will find its way back to black America. The Professor told me yesterday he was proud of me, that it was the best Colloquum held in the Institute for a long time and that every person was astounded that I should have chosen such a difficult theme and yet handled it and the language with perfection.

Yesterday I couldn’t work for being congratulated. The Prof. and I remained in the Lab. until 10 o’clock yesterday evening together. Friday was the only day I missed from work. Thursday evening he ordered that I go home and not be seen until I “made my bow.”

Yours truly is made here. This was the public climax. The Professor spoke about my work with him, stating that the future was bound to hear from me, and that he hoped America could make it possible for this “brilliance to shine.” Boy, excuse me but I could write you a dozen pages about what they said. I broke up the whole works. As I wrote Julius (had a telegram of good-luc’ wishes from him just before my speech–yesterday at noon, really), I have had a few successes but my PBK speech was not such a raving success as this.

Now for the last round, the rush to get our papers to the press. If any Sh—- asks you how Percy L. is getting on just tell him he’s giving ’em Hell and not on toast.

Strange, one is appreciated everywhere more than among his own. When I told the Prof. yesterday what my ignorant students did to kill me and my fellow “comrades,” he hardly wanted to believe it. He said, “My God, Austria, a nation of centuries of culture and having possessed geniuses untold, would, poor as she is, be proud to give a man like you a place and an opportunity to rise. That your people can spare you, the Austrian people can’t understand. You must then be a race of geniuses.” Whereupon I wished hard that the speech were before the public there, where the more I ponder the more I feel like being damn fool and kissing the works “Good-bye, Good-Luck, God bless you.”

My best to you–Merry Xmas!


Source: “Giving ’em Hell and Not on Toast,” The Afro-American (Washington, D.C.) (3 September 1932): 1.

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Percy Lavon Julian’s doctoral success in Vienna (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