A photo of former Maywood resident Percy Julian in the lab, which appears on website promoting the PBS documentary “Forgotten Genius.” | PBS || Below: Martin Shkreli | Business Insider
Martin Shkreli, 32, (pictured left), may arguably be, as the BBC once wondered aloud, “the most hated man in America,” but at least he knows some black history.
Shkreli, you may recall, is the wunderkind pharmaceutical-company CEO “who achieved instantaneous notoriety last fall when he acquired the U.S. rights to a lifesaving drug and promptly boosted its price over 5,000 percent, from $13.50 a tablet to $750,” according to a December 2015 Vanity Fair article.
Shkreli is a constant social media presence — posting photos of $1,000 wine bottles, boasting about his acquisition of a one-of-a-kind $2 million Wu-Tang Clan album, threatening to slap a prominent member of said clan if he ever encounters the rapper face-to-face, claiming he’s “from the hood” (he grew up in Brooklyn and was raised by working-class Albanian immigrants), subtly burnishing his street cred by talking about his three-week stint in a New York City jail after his arrest on securities fraud charges — but his presence seems only to fan the flames of hatred and vituperation that surround him.
Recently, however, the young pharmaceutical entrepreneur has been on something of a public relations campaign to save a bit of his face, or perhaps to simply add to the air of confusion, intrigue and irony that hovers over everything he does.
During a Feb. 3 interview on the wildly popular New York City Hip-Hop radio show The Breakfast Club, Shkreli attempted to humanize himself amid the many unflattering media profiles depicting him as Public Enemy No. 1.
And it worked, largely owing to Shkreli saying things like this:
“There are a few black men that matter in my life more than you can imagine,” in response to one of the radio hosts asking him what he’s doing to help the Black Lives Matter movement.
“One is a guy in D.C., who is my mentor. He’s very close to the president and he’s shepherded me in my success. Another man, who has passed away and who I never met, is Percy Julian — a man who nobody knows. He’s arguably one of the most important men in pharmaceutical history and pharma guys don’t event know who he is, so I won’t expect anyone else to know who he is.”
If you live in Maywood, or nearby Oak Park, the two places the famous scientist lived for most of his working life, you likely know who Percy Julian is — but it’s refreshing to hear someone, a pharmaceutical exec no less, give the man his due (even if that exec is a national villain).
“Percy started a pharma company in the 1950’s,” Shkreli said. “As a black guy, that’s practically impossible, but the guy was so good at chemistry — this is a Ph.D. chemist, nerdieset guy you can imagine, no one would respect him, no one would let him make money. He could synthesize steroids [which] is very difficult. He invented a [route] where he could make steroids cheaply and mass produce them and today everyone in this room has taken a steroid in their lives … for pretty much whatever ails you. Thanks to Percy, the world has changed.”
Shkreli then referenced a photo of Julian standing with outstretched arms in front of the Franklin Park headquarters of his Julian Laboratories, Inc., which he would eventually sell in 1961 for $2.3 million, or around $18 million adjusted for inflation.
The much-maligned and hated child of Syrian immigrants then talked about a 2007 two-hour PBS documentary on Julian called “Forgotten Genius,” which shows a photo that Shkreli said made him cry.
“It’s him in a lab coat, a black guy, and about 30, 40 white people behind him and it just brought a tear to my eye, because this whole documentary [shows how he] fought, struggled and went against all the pain and hate people had for him and he just focused on his chemistry and he changed the world.”
Shkreli’s The Breakfast Club interview has more than 700,000 YouTube views, with many of the 6,000 comments saying, “I kinda like this guy.”
The interview prompted me, and no doubt innumerable others, to YouTube search the PBS film, which can be viewed in two roughly hour-long parts. Most of the comments under the two videos are along the lines of, “Martin Shkreli brought me here,” or “The Breakfast Club brought me here.” One commentor asks, “Why dont we all know this mans name” [sic].
Naturally, part two has far fewer views than part one — which is unfortunate, because there’s this ironic sequence that takes place around the 40-minute mark depicting Julian’s decision to do precisely the opposite of Shkreli after having found a way “to quadruple the yield on a product on which [his company was] barely breaking even.”
“I thought, personally, that that was a good opportunity to recover some profits lost on the low yields of the pervious year,” said Julian Laboratories chemist James Letton. “Instead, [Percy] dropped the price of the stuff from $4,000 a kilo to about $400 [a kilogram] and I couldn’t understand why he’d do that.”
“He wanted to make money,” said another of Julian’s chemists, “but he also wanted things to be available for people.”
And that’s where Shkreli and Julian differ. Or maybe not.
In the Vanity Fair profile, titled “Everything You Know About Martin Shkreli Is Wrong—Or Is It?”, Shkreli offers a counterintuitive explanation of why he spiked the price of that life-saving drug, called Daraprim.
“In one breath, he calls himself a capitalist and in the next an altruist — the latter because, he claims, his real goal is to invent new drugs for rare diseases. Turing [Shkreli’s company] recently announced discounts of Daraprim for hospitals, and Shkreli says that for people without insurance it will cost only $1 a pill. For everyone else, insurance, which he argues is paid for by corporate America’s profits, will cover the cost. ‘I’m like Robin Hood,’ he continues. ‘I’m taking Walmart’s money and doing research for diseases no one cares about.’
Maybe, maybe not. At least he knows some black history. VFP
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