Science Heroes: Dr. Roger Arliner Young

Let’s step back in time. The year is 1921: Prohibition has banned all production and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States, The Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma has demonstrated the continued racist violence of the Jim Crow era, and World War I has ended. In Washington D.C. at Howard University, a young Black woman from Pennsylvania takes her first collegiate science class. Her name is Roger Arliner Young.

Left: The 18th amendment, National Prohibition, had alcohol banned from 1920 until 1933 [Source]; Right: The 369th Infantry of African American troops arrive back home after WW1. [Source].

Dr. Roger Arliner Young was the first Black woman to receive her Ph.D. in Zoology in 1940 at the age of 41. Young’s science journey is one of perseverance, dedication, and passion for her research, despite personal challenges (e.g. being a primary caretaker for her disabled mother), academic obstacles (e.g. poor undergraduate grades), financial instability, and societal barriers (e.g. rampant sexism and racism within the academic community and beyond).

When 17-year-old Young entered college in 1916, she initially planned to study music. However, upon taking her first science course in general zoology in 1921, she found a mentor in the head of the Zoology department, a Black biologist named Dr. Ernest Everett Just. Even though she struggled with her grades, Young ultimately changed her major with the biologist’s encouragement, graduating with a B.S. in Biology two years later. She saved money to attend graduate school and began her Master’s degree at the University of Chicago in 1924. During this time, she was invited to join Sigma Xi, an exclusive science research society with members that included Albert Einstein. Young’s research focused on the structures that control salt concentrations in aquatic, single-celled animals in order to understand how living cells deal with hydration and dehydration. Her research publication “On the Excretory Apparatus in Paramecium” in the renowned scientific journal Science made Young the first Black woman to publish research in the field of Zoology and Marine Biology [1].

Dr. Roger Arliner Young studied the anatomy of the paramecium [Source].

After graduating with her Master’s, she joined her college mentor Dr. Just at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts in 1927. She often helped teach his classes, in addition to her own research. Her work focused on fertilization in marine organisms; particularly, how ultraviolet radiation (i.e. the part of the light spectrum that produces high energy waves and is known to cause cancer and cataracts) affects sea urchin eggs. Unfortunately, due to radiation exposure during her experiments, Young permanently damaged her eyes and had potentially related future mental and physical health problems. In spite of these health issues, the continued care of her mother, the new responsibility of becoming the interim head of the Zoology Department at Howard University, and living in the height of the Jim Crow era, Young decided to return to the University of Chicago in 1929 in pursuit of a doctorate degree.

A 1930’s postcard of Wood’s Hole Marine Biological Laboratory [Source].

Her Ph.D. had a rocky start – she didn’t pass her Qualifying Exam (i.e. an intense oral examination where faculty test a student’s research knowledge and critical thinking skills). Although she did not blame her failure on the pervasive racism and sexism of the time, she did mention in a letter to her advisor Dr. Frank Rattray Lillie that for two years she held the weight of responsibilities that were not her burden to carry (i.e. her mentor Dr. Just, placing additional research and teaching duties on her, despite her own workload) and that weight “simply wore me out.” It also mustn’t have helped that her own advisor, Dr. Lillie, was a part of the Eugenics Committee of the United States (a committee that promoted the pseudoscientific idea that people of color were genetically inferior to white people). Understandably, Young took a hiatus from academia and science. She eventually returned to Howard University and continued teaching marine biology and zoology classes, but combatted a deteriorating professional relationship with her former mentor, Dr. Just. In a letter to Just, Young wrote, “you seem to be making a deliberate effort to keep me from doing any research” and within a year her acrimonious mentor fired Young was simply advocating for herself. These horrendous racist and sexist situations that Young dealt with did not keep her from publishing four articles between 1935 and 1938 and returning to her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania [2-4]. She completed her Ph.D. in 1940, publishing her dissertation “The Indirect Effects of Roentgen Rays on Certain Marine Eggs” with her new mentor Dr. Lewis Heilbrunn [5].

Dr. Roger Arliner Young continued on to professorships at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and was even the chair of the Biology Department at Shaw University in North Carolina. Yet academia in a HBCU could not mask the continuing societal racism and sexism of the era, so she joined the NAACP in 1944. Despite her responsibilities as a caretaker, professor, and researcher, she spent spare time registering voters and recruiting people to the Tobacco Workers International Union, an organization pioneering the US labor movement that ensured worker safety and rights. Unfortunately, this activism was not taken well by academics in North Carolina, who barred Dr. Young from working in the state. Yet she still went on to teach college courses in Texas and Mississippi.

Dr. Roger Arliner Young around 1927-1929. She is often cited as a scientific “cautionary tale” and while we must acknowledge the injustice she faced her entire life, that should not overshadow her tenacity and her contributions to marine biology and zoology [Credit: Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institution ImageSource].

Dr. Young’s career demonstrates incredible weight of being both a Black person in a time of rampant racism and a woman striving to succeed in a sexist field dominated by men. Mentors took advantage of her skills and work ethic, her own community rejected her activism, and the societal infrastructure failed to provide her with resources to properly care for herself and her mother. Her story demonstrates that one does not have to start their career thinking they will be a scientist. It demonstrates that grades are not the bellwether of being a great and influential scientist. It demonstrates that scientists are complex people that bring intersectional identities and personal struggles into the laboratory, but that doesn’t make them any less capable or successful. And while her incredible contributions to science are not acknowledged with the fanfare of her male (both Black and White) and White female counterparts, Dr. Roger Arliner Young’s tenacity, bravery, devotion, and research contributions (despite the challenges she faced her entire life) reminds us that science is for everyone and makes her an unsung Science Hero!

Want to learn more about this Science Hero?

Have a Young Explorer that would benefit from knowing this Science Hero? Head over to the Sci Hero column for printable Sci Hero Trading Cards featuring the Sci Hero’s “origin story” and super powers.

The Roger Arliner Young (RAY) diversity fellowship aims to increase representation of students of color in conservation.

Check out DN Lee’s Scientific American blog, Leila McNeill’s BBC article, and Emily Okikawa’s blog on Ocean Currents.

Diaz, S. (2012). “Doing science from the back of the bus: Science, Eugenics, and Jim Crow in the life of Roger Arliner Young” in Gender, race and science: A feminista analysis of women of color in science. [Doctoral Dissertation, University of Washington], 38-96. Scholarly Publishing Services.

Selby, A. (2017). Who is the great Roger Arliner Young? CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Warren, W. (1999). “Roger Arliner Young: A cautionary tale” in Black women scientists in the United States. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. pp. 287–295.

Want to read Dr. Young’s published research?

[1] Young, R.A. (1924). On the excretory apparatus in Paramecium. Science, 60(1550), 244. doi:10.1126/science.60.1550.244.

[2] Heilbrunn L. V. & Young, R. A. (1930). The action of ultra-violet rays on Arbacia egg protoplasm. Physiological Zoology. 3(3): 330–341. doi:10.1086/physzool.3.3.30151104.

[3] Heilbrunn, L.V.; Young, R.A. (1935). Indirect effects of radiation on sea urchin eggs. The Biological Bulletin. 69(2), 274–278. doi:10.2307/1537426.

[4] Costello, D.P. & Young, R. A. (1939). The mechanism of membrane elevation in the egg of Nereis (abstract). Biological Bulletin, 77, 311.

[5] Young, Roger Arliner (1940). The indirect effects of roentgen rays on certain marine eggs. Thesis (Ph.D.). Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Pennsylvania.

Karli Chudeau is a graduate student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group and a part of the UC Davis Coastal Marine Sciences Institute. She is interested in conservation management and assessing animal welfare in wildlife rehabilitation settings. Her current research examines how we can use behavioral management interventions, such as environmental enrichment, to improve reintroduction success with pinnipeds. She is also an avid ocean nerd.

Additional References:

Diaz, S. (2007, March 07). Roger Arliner Young (1889-1964). Retrieved from

Manning, K.R. (1989). “Roger Arliner Young: Scientist.” Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black
Women, 6(2), 3-7.

Maisel, M. & Smart, L. (1997). “Roger Arliner Young: Lifelong struggle of a zoologist” in Women in Science. Retrieved from–pdf-version

[Edited by Alex McInturf]

4 Comments Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s