Thursday, February 2, 2012
Dr. Ernest Everett Just African American Biologist
Just first became enthralled with biology at Dartmouth University. In 1907, he graduated magna cum laude, winning virtually every prize there was to win, as well as honors in sociology, history, botany and zoology; he was the only black man in his graduating class of 287. When Just graduated from Dartmouth, he was immediately offered a job as an English teacher at Howard University. Two years later, he accepted an appointment as an instructor in biology, and eventually devoted all of his time to teaching biology. In 1912, he established and became the head of Howard's Department of Zoology.
While at Howard, Just was approached by Edgar A. Love, Oscar J. Cooper, and Frank Coleman about starting a fraternity on Howard's campus. Fearful of the political threat a secret organization of young blacks might pose to Howard's white administration, the university's faculty and administration opposed the whole idea. Just worked at mediating the controversy. And on 15 December 1911, the Alpha chapter of Omega Psi Phi was organized at Howard University.
Because of the difficulty black scientist at that time had obtaining appointments, Just's first inquiries into the possibility of conducting basic research were not initially encouraged. Eventually Frank Lillie, Director of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Wood's Hole, MA, noticed his determination, brought him to the MBL to study and act as a lab assistant. Just became fascinated with problems of fertilization and development. In 1912, he published his first paper in the Biological Bulletin. In 1915, the NAACP awarded Just the first Springarn Medal. After many delays and obstacles, he obtained his PhD, in 1916, summa cum laude, from the University of Chicago.
Though he experienced a fairly warm reception at the MBL, he found his opportunities in the US quite limited; there was no way to obtain an appointment at a "white" university, and few traditionally "black" universities had, resources or inclination to support pure research in the sciences. He had better luck in Europe, where he worked in Italy, France, and Germany. He published over 50 papers between 1912 and 1937. His ideas about embryonic development and fertilization were radical, innovative, and (for his time) unusually philosophical. In 1939, he published his magnum opus, The Biology of the Cell Surface a beautifully written and oddly accessible treatise on cell development and fertilization which also extrapolated his ideas into the realms of evolution, medicine, philosophy and even religion.
His complex scientific life was mirrored by an equally complex personal life. He was married to Ethel Highwarden in 1912, and they had three children; Margaret, Mary and Highwarden. Ethel was refined, sophisticated, well educated and extremely intelligent, but their marriage was difficult. He was often preoccupied with work worries when at home in Washington, D.C., and, though a black scientist might be accepted at Wood's Hole, Ethel and the children were decidedly unwelcome. While in Europe, he had two affairs with German women, and these affairs (a black man with white women) as much as the radical nature of his science, shocked the American scientific world.
Just found it more and more difficult to find funding for his research as he began to think more independently. He chafed at his duties at Howard, and longed for a life of pure research. He was able to work in Europe for a short time, but at the advent of World War II, had to flee with his new wife, Hedwig Schnetzler. He returned with her and their daughter, Elizabeth, to the States. Once back in the US, though quite ill, he continued to try and find support.
Dr. Just died of pancreatic cancer in October of 1941, at the age of 53.