If you have a chronic health condition, have you ever wondered where steroids came from?

I do and I did.

I first began to understand the ubiquity of steroids while my father slowly went downhill due to emphysema. There was no remedy but there were two mitigating substances he took. One of them was prednisone. The other?

One day, he summoned the entire family to hear an announcement: he planned to kill himself. (That night he tried but failed, although his failure produced quite a series of black comedy episodes. The final flourish of his announcement was, “Gee, I hope you kids are hungry. Roz [my stepmother] made a terrific brisket!”)

Dad prefaced his oration thusly: “I…am a man…with emphysema.” He then glanced at the glass full of clear liquid from which he was drinking and continued, “And I…am a man…with vodka.”

Put aside the vodka for now. (Maybe you want some later, I’m not saying no.) Let’s consider the prednisone. As that link from the Mayo Clinic reveals, steroids — of which prednisone is one — are a default treatment for so many ailments, Mayo lists them alphabetically.

I have two chronic conditions, one of which, uveitis, responds only to prednisone eye drops.

A day or so ago, as I was squeezing a drop of the milky substance into my left eye, my mind went back to my father, and I asked myself, “But what are steroids and who invented/developed them?”

What on this earth is Google for if not this? And Google gave me two big surprises. The first was that steroids come from plant compounds.

The second surprise, though, was an exciting one: the man who developed steroids was American chemist and successful entrepreneur, Percy Lavon Julian, the grandson of enslaved people.

Thank you, Dr. Julian. Your work made years of my father’s life tolerable, and I suspect I’d go blind if it weren’t for you.



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