August 14, 1883 – October 27, 1941
Ernest Everett Just was born in Charleston, South Carolina to Mary Matthews and Charles Frazier Just. His father was a dock builder while his mother earned a living as a teacher. Unfortunately, his father died when he was four years old and the loss resulted in financial difficulties for the family. His mother relocated with Just and his two siblings to James Island where she found work in the local phosphate mines.
James Island was home to a Gullah community of which Mary became a well-respected member. Few if any women worked as miners but the job provided a higher income than those typically filled by women. She used her earnings to purchase real estate and encouraged other Black locals to do the same as a means of achieving progress. Mary had been a teacher in Charleston and helped to establish a school in the newly established community. The town that these early investors founded was named Marysville in honor of her community leadership.
Just attended the small local school that had been founded by his mother. There were few local options for Just to further his education. Thus at the age of 12, Just was enrolled at the Colored Normal Industrial Agricultural and Mechanics College at Orangeburg (currently South Carolina State College). At 15 years old Just completed the school’s teacher track and received his teaching certification.
Uninterested in teaching, Just instead opted to move north to attend the Kimball Union Academy. (Kimball is a boarding school at the high school 9-12 level.) To earn money, Just worked odd jobs as he made his way to the school in Meriden, New Hampshire. Having achieved good grades at Kimball, Just earned scholarships to help with his tuition at Dartmouth College. Just’s time at Dartmouth would have a tremendous impact on his life’s direction.
At Dartmouth, Just had the opportunity to take science classes which included botany and biology. Learning under several noted scientists of the time, Just developed a passion for biology and chose that as his major. Just earned high grades and was a two-year Rufus Choate Scholar, Phi Beta Kappa member, and recipient of numerous other awards. Just graduated magna cum laude in a class of 287 students of which he was the only Black person.
Yet, despite his academic performance and accolades, there were few opportunities in the sciences for Black professionals. As with many other brilliant Black scholars of the time who found themselves shut out of various fields, Just took his talents to Howard University. At Howard, Just taught English, biology, and zoology. He later became head of the Department of Zoology.
Seeking a path to graduate studies, Just reached out to his former professor who referred him to Frank R. Lillie. Lillie led the Department of Zoology at the University of Chicago and the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Just spent the next few summers taking classes and studying various facets of marine biology at MBL.
Lillie was able to use his pull to get Just into the doctorate program at the University of Chicago and have Just’s work at MBL counted towards his degree. One particular assignment at MBL saw Just studying cell division in sandworm eggs. It marked the beginning of what would become a well-respected career in the study of marine life concerning mating habits, egg fertilization, and embryo development.
Just continued to teach at Howard during the school year where he rose through the academic ranks and was a popular professor. To meet the residency requirements and other outstanding criteria needed to complete his doctorate, Just began in-person study at the University of Chicago. This required him to take a leave of absence from his position at Howard University.
From a list of 30 nominees, Just was selected to receive the NAACP’s first Springarn Medal in 1915. The following year, Just completed his Ph.D. in Zoology, capping off his tenure as a nationally recognized outstanding research scientist student. Upon completion of his Ph.D., Just returned to MBL. He became a member of several professional science organizations and published multiple research articles in scientific journals which further raised Just’s profile.
Yet, while Just rose in prominence, he still had to contend with racism. In addition to Lillie, Just had other supporters at MBL but he experienced a degree of social ostracism in the form of exclusion from some social gatherings. His relationship with fellow scientist Jaques Loeb, soured when Just criticized the quality of Loeb’s work. Their individual research projects reaching conflicting conclusions would result in continued bickering.
It’s believed that Loeb’s disparaging comments about Just’s intelligence and capabilities led to him being denied positions and larger grants from the Rockefeller Institute and the Carnegie Foundation. Just struggled to find permanent work at major universities or organizations in America. Just was trying to escape the obligations and bureaucracy of Howard but some industry power players preferred that he remain at Howard. Some because they didn’t want him at traditionally White research organizations and others because they thought he could have a greater impact at Howard.
Yet, Just managed to receive two grants from the Rosenwald Fund that respectively lasted for seven and five years. They enabled him to make about ten trips to Europe between 1929 and 1938. In time he came to feel more welcome and comfortable working in Europe among European scientists. His first home base was Naples, Italy where he worked at Stazione Zoologica. He was next invited to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Berlin, Germany.
Just had married Ethel Highwarden in 1912 and the union produced three children. Sources vary but the couple divorced in 1939 either due to Just having abandoned his family following an affair or the marriage simply falling apart due to his long periods away from home for work. Later during the same year of his divorce, Just married Hedwig Schnetzler, a German woman that some sources cite as having been his mistress. His second marriage produced a daughter.
Unfortunately, his time in Germany coincided with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Just left Germany for France only to have that country invaded by the Nazis. He disregarded orders for foreigners to leave in favor of completing a research paper. This delay led to Just being captured and interred in a Nazi prison camp.
He was rescued by the U.S. State Department in September 1940 after a relatively short imprisonment. But it’s believed that Just had been sick in the time leading up to his capture. Just’s time in the camp further deteriorated his health and he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer shortly after his release. He returned to America with hopes of restarting his career at Howard University.
On October 27, 1941, Ernest Everett Just died from pancreatic cancer. During his career, Just published over 70 scientific articles and multiple books. While he never reached his full potential due to a lack of opportunities, Just is regarded as a pioneer in the field of marine biology and embryo development.
- Bianco, David. 2023. “Just, Ernest Everett 1883–1941.” Encyclopedia.Com. Encyclopedia.com. June 4, 2023. https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/history/historians-miscellaneous-biographies/ernest-everett-just.
- Byrnes, W Malcolm. 2009. “Ernest Everett Just, Johannes Holtfreter, and the Origin of Certain Concepts in Embryo Morphogenesis.” Molecular Reproduction and Development. U.S. National Library of Medicine. October 2009. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3371230/.
- Crow, James F. 2008. “Just and Unjust: E. E. Just (1883-1941).” Genetics. U.S. National Library of Medicine. August 2008. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2516054/.
- “Dr. Ernest Everett Just.” n.d. MyBlackHistory.Net. Accessed June 4, 2023. http://www.myblackhistory.net/Ernest_Just.htm.
- “Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941).” n.d. Marine Biological Laboratory. Accessed June 4, 2023. https://www.mbl.edu/about/diversity-inclusion/legacy-leadership/ernest-everett-just.
- Joe. 2016. “Celebrating ‘The Black Apollo of Science’ Ernest Everett Just.” Arthur Ashe Legacy. UCLA Social Sciences. August 15, 2016. https://arthurashe.ucla.edu/2016/08/15/celebrating-the-black-apollo-of-science-ernest-everett-just/.
- Selassie, W. Gabriel. 2023. “Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941).” BlackPast.Org. March 5, 2023. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/just-ernest-everett-1883-1941/.
- Wellner, Karen. 2010. “Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941).” The Embryo Project Encyclopedia. June 16, 2010. https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/ernest-everett-just-1883-1941.
- Wynes, Charles E. 2022. “Just, Ernest Everett.” South Carolina Encyclopedia. University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies. August 5, 2022. https://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/just-ernest-everett/.
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