When Milton Lang Brown, III, M.D., Ph.D., received the 2015 Percy Julian Award last September—the Nobel Prize for black chemists from the National Association for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers—he was compared immediately to the award’s namesake.
Percy Julian received more than 130 patents for synthetic drugs, leading to the industry’s producing such medications as cortisone, corticosteroids and birth control pills. In 1973, he became the National Academy of Science first black chemist inductee.
Upon closer analysis, Brown, a medicinal chemist with 38 drug patents, four start-up biotechnology companies and one un-closeted faith, lines up more like a 21st Century George Washington Carver.
Perhaps the most striking similarity between Carver and Brown is their un-apologetic pairing of God and science. A little-known George Washington Carver factoid was his unshakeable faith in God, particularly when fellow scientists began to view science and religion as mutually exclusive. Not only did Carver dub his world-famous lab “God’s little workshop,” but also for more than 30 years, Carver taught a Sunday afternoon Bible class at Tuskegee.
Brown’s early Christian education netted him both a spiritual foundation and a spouse. In Huntsville, Alabama, he and teenage sweetheart, Sandra Roper, graduated together from Oakwood Academy (1983), and Oakwood College (1987), Seventh-day Adventist institutions. Their two daughters are following their parents by attending the latter.
When he addressed a conference of 374 seniors for The Center For Aging last year, he opened with prayer and then discussed the science. He ended his 38-minute fireside chat by saying, “I’m just blessed to have a purpose to make new medicines to impact the world.”
When the National Academy of Inventors inducted its 2015 Class of Fellows in April this year, Brown became a Fellow, or, in his lingo, “one of d’ fellas.” To read his 67-page curriculum vitae, one would think he is a highbrow academician. But outside of the Ivies, this double doctor blends effortlessly into any smack-talkin,’ fist-bumpin’ barbershop in the ‘hood. The difference? His tales aren’t fables. They are faith journeys.
The Faith Journeys: How Struggle Enhanced Genius
Upon entering University of Alabama, Birmingham, in 1989, the department chairman confronted Brown. No African-American had ever earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. Later, Brown’s research advisor and dissertation committee informed him that he must create a drug in order to graduate. Brown felt inexperienced and declared the assignment impossible. Then his wife directed him: “Go, get in the lab, and ask God to do it for you.”
With a backpack and a cot, Brown camped out there until God revealed a molecular structure in living 3-D, right before his eyes—without IMAX glasses. He leapt! He leapt, that is, until he presented his findings to his professor, who declared, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Dejected, Brown returned home only to hear his wife repeat her directive. He sent his research to the National Institute for Neurological Disease and Stroke. Four months later, the institute told him that he had made “the most powerful anti-seizure drug we’ve seen in a long time.”
During his second year of medical school at the University of Virginia, Brown—a Ph.D.—flunked his Neuroscience course and lost his full scholarship. Embarrassed and self-assigned to the rear of the class, he encountered a classmate, another flunkee. Summer “redemption” school in Vermont afforded the two a non air-conditioned, back- of-hospital, near-the-loading-dock room. While praying to God for academic redemption and cool air, two other flunkees overheard Brown and his classmate through the open window and joined them. This ad hoc prayer gathering grew to be 20 strong and was forced to relocate to the more spacious main lobby.
In 2006, Brown established the drug discovery center at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The redeemed neuroscience student was awarded a $4.5M Edwin H. Richard and Elisabeth von Matsch Endowed Chair in Experimental Therapeutics. Brown is now a tenured professor in four different departments, including Neuroscience and Oncology. His work serves as a launching pad for new medicines, including those that fight cancer, the effects of radiation, hypertension, epileptic convulsions, and nicotine and cocaine addictions.
When asked about the potential impact of his life work, he mulls the question then answers, “Each drug has the potential to save millions of lives and to have a global impact until Jesus comes.”
Originally published in Message Magazine’s JULY/AUGUST 2016 Edition by Tim Allston