Science Heroes: Dr. Ernest Everett Just

In the Reconstruction Era, Black men were able to vote and participate in government. This picture from 1872 shows the 1st congressional representatives [Source: Library of Congress]

In the post-Civil War era, Black Americans in the Southern states continued reuniting with their families separated during enslavement, becoming property owners and creating their own successful business opportunities and participating in government. However, no one was free from rampant discrimination and racial threats, especially in South Carolina. Paramilitary terrorist groups, like the Red Shirts, used force to regain political power in the South, repressing Black voters and intimidating others to support white supremacist candidates. This was the political climate Ernest Everett Just was born into in 1883 Charleston, South Carolina. While he would face systemic racism in both the Southern and Northern United States throughout his entire life, this did not stop Just from becoming a world-renowned scientist. 

South Carolina harbor including Charleston and James Island, where E.E. Just grew up [Source: Wikimedia].

With his father, a dock builder, dying when Just was four years old, E.E. Just’s mother Mary was the sole caretaker of Just and his two younger siblings and worked to help her children achieve their greatest potential. Mary Matthews Just was a resilient woman, working at James Island in the phosphate mines to provide for her family. Shortly after Just’s father died, Mary used her saved wages to purchase land from a vacant plantation on James Island and led others to join her self-governing community. The African-American township (named after herself, Maryville) was chartered in 1886, and Mary Just founded a school and continuing to support her family as an educator. Just enjoyed his childhood on James Island and was enamored with the natural world, describing the beauty and harmony of his backyard.

James Island in the late 1800s had abandoned plantations from the Civil War and a natural world that became E.E. Just’s playground [Source: Corey Seeman, Flickr].

Mary wanted her son to be a teacher, so after being educated at his mother’s elementary school, Just’s next step was higher education. When Congress passed the 2nd Morrill Act of 1890, southern states were required to establish higher education institutions for Black Americans. However, states were not required to provide comparable resources to Black universities. At fifteen years old, Ernest Everett Just received an instructional license from Colored Normal Industrial Agricultural and Mechanics College at Orangeburg (now South Carolina State University) to teach in the state’s Black public schools. However, with Jim Crow laws, segregation, and continued racial tensions in the southern states, there were few opportunities for Just to advance within the school system, and both he and his mother knew there would be more promising educational opportunities if he moved north.

Just, pictured front and center was the Editor-in-Chief of The Kimball Union student newspaper in 1903 [Source: Kimball Union Archives].

Just was the only Black student of 170 to attend Kimball Union Academy in 1900, a college-preparatory boarding school in New Hampshire. Archives indicate that Kimball was a warm community––a stark contrast from the South––where Just felt welcome and excelled in academics and extra curricular’s, finishing four years of course work a year early in 1903. Tragically his mother Mary, died before she could see her son graduate at the head of his class, a Rufus Choate scholar, and an esteemed editor of the school newspaper and president of the debate society. Friends and faculty at Kimball encouraged Just to continue his education at Dartmouth College.

Just hoped Dartmouth would be as welcoming as Kimball but Just often felt isolated. During this time period, Eugenics research, a pseudoscience that advocated for selective breeding and inferior genes, described non-White, disabled, and homosexual individuals as inferior, including faculty at Dartmouth. One faculty member, John Gerould, a zoologist who taught Just and introduced him to marine laboratory research, chose to “see Just as White.” Despite the isolation and racist social dynamics, Just had taken every biology course offered at Dartmouth by 1907 and graduated magna cum laude, with about every award possible including his second Rufus Choate scholarship and a membership to Phi Beta Kappa. Unfortunately, high grades and numerous accolades were not enough for a Black college graduate to get a university faculty job in 1907, even in the Northern United States. Just settled on a teaching position at Howard University, a Historically Black College in Washington, D.C. At 27 years old, Just was appointed the head of the Department of Zoology, a position he kept until 1940. Yet, his unquenching thirst for knowledge did not end here.

Beginning in 1909, Just spent summers at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts as a research assistant. Dr. Frank R. Lillie, the director of MBL and head of the Zoology Department at the University of Chicago, suggested that Just complete a PhD under his guidance. Ernest Everett Just spent the next several years hustling and flourishing as an academic and a scientist. Summers were spent studying marine invertebrate eggs, taking graduate courses in invertebrate zoology and embryology at MBL, and publishing academic articles. School years were spent at Howard teaching zoology, creating advanced science courses, and having a simultaneous professorship in physiology at the medical school as well as his professorship in Biology.

Left: marine worms, (Family Nereididae) and purple urchins (Arbacia punctulata) were two of Just’s study organisms [Source: Wikimedia]

Just had a knack for experimental design, understanding and studying the natural conditions necessary for marine invertebrate fertilization and replicating these settings in a laboratory environment (he would later, quite literally, write the book on it) [1,2]. This ability allowed Just to experimentally test hypotheses about fertilization that previously had only been speculated. He published his first paper in 1912 showing that sperm of the marine worm (spp. Nereis) can enter an egg at any point on the egg’s surface, and this entry point dictated how the zygote (i.e. fertilized egg) would begin dividing to create larvae [2]. This was an important discovery in a time where most people thought that all organisms develop from homunculi (miniature versions of themselves) that have existed since the beginning of creation (i.e. Preformationism theory). This and following work culminated in Just’s nomination for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) first Spingarn award in 1915 for his contributions to science and his service to placing Black people and the NAACP “in the mainstream of Western tradition.”

[Source: Flickr]

With several papers published, Just was ready to graduate with his PhD in 1915, but needed to establish a 1 year residency in Chicago (as he had spent all his time at the marine lab in Woods Hole) to complete his degree. Just and his advisor Dr. Lillie were able to convince the administration at Howard University (where Just continued to teach) to allow Just to take a year leave of absence because “the reputation of faculty members is important for any medical school.” Just took physiology classes during his year at University of Chicago and received his PhD in experimental embryology in 1916. Dr. Lillie advocated for Just’s hire as a permanent researcher at MBL, but was ultimately unsuccessful due to racism within the MBL community. Knowing the mental toll systemic racism has on a person, Just began mentoring an up-and-coming scientist, Dr. Roger Arliner Young, the first Black woman to receive a PhD in Zoology in 1921 (read more about this Science Hero here). During this time, Just also received the prestigious Rosenwald grant that funded his research in Europe for nearly a decade. Over time, Dr. Just relied on then graduate student Young to assist in teaching classes and maintaining laboratory experiments in Woods Hole while he was abroad. Yet the pressure to be twice as accomplished as his white colleagues just to get less recognition, research flexibility, and job security convinced Dr. Just to permanently move to Europe in 1938 where he had created relationships with scientists who had less “racial hang-ups” than Americans.

Dr. E.E. Just spent his career providing evidence for an ecological-developmental biology perspective on fertilization, characterizing the natural conditions, breeding habits, and embryology of marine invertebrates, and assisting his colleagues in improving their experimental techniques for studying these marine organisms. Dr. Just advanced the fields of embryology, developmental biology, and cytology in a time of rampant racism and uplifted other Black scientists in the process and that is what makes him a Science Hero.

[Photo source: Wikimedia; Artwork: Kirsten Sheehy]

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 on Animal Adventure Thursdays for printable Sci Hero Trading Cards featuring the Sci Hero’s “origin story” and super powers .

Read Kenneth R. Manning’s book Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just. —An excellent, well-researched biography of Just.

Listen to the episode 10 African American Biologists on the podcast “Speaking of Race.”

Watch Afric*Network’s video highlighting Dr. Just’s accomplishments.

Check out Karen Wellner’s article in The Embryo Project Encyclopedia and Walton Malcom Byrnes article “Ernest Everett Just: Experimental biologist par excellence.”

Listen to the Danita Smith’s “Black and Education” podcast episode on Ernest Everett Just.


Want to read Dr. Just’s published research?

[1] Just, E.E. (1939). Basic methods for experiments on eggs of marine animals. P. Blakiston’s sons & Company, Incorporated.

[2] Lillie, F. R., & Just, E. E. (1913). Breeding habits of the heteronereis form of Nereis limbata at Woods Hole, Mass. The Biological Bulletin24(3), 147-168.

 [3] Just, E.E. (1912). The relation of the first cleavage plane to the entrance point of the sperm. The Biological Bulletin22(4), 239-252.

[4] Just, E.E. (1914). Breeding habits of the heteronereis form of Platynereis megalops at Woods Hole, Mass. The Biological Bulletin27(4), 201-212.

[5] Just, E.E. (1921). The susceptibility of the inseminated egg to hypotonic seawater. A contribution to the analysis of the fertilization-reaction. Anat. Rec20, 83.

[6] Just, E.E. (1939). The Biology of the Cell Surface. Garland Publishing, New York.

For complete works, see Byrnes & Eckberg, 2006


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:

Wellner, Karen, “Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941)”. Embryo Project Encyclopedia (2010-06-16). ISSN: 1940-5030 http://embryo.asu.edu/handle/10776/2039.

Byrnes W. M. (2009). Ernest Everett Just, Johannes Holtfreter, and the origin of certain concepts in embryo morphogenesis. Molecular reproduction and development76(10), 912–921. https://doi.org/10.1002/mrd.21081

Byrnes, W.M. & William R. Eckberg, W.R. (2006). Ernest Everett Just (1883–1941)—An early ecological developmental biologist. Developmental Biology, 296(1), 1-11.

Byrnes W. M. (2015). E. E. Just and Creativity in Science. The Importance of Diversity. Journal of African American Studies19(3), 264–278. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12111-015-9305-1

[Edited by Allison Lau]

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