Young, Roger Arliner 1899–1964
Roger Arliner Young 1899–1964
Roger Arliner Young overcame tremendous obstacles to become the first black woman to receive a doctoral degree in zoology. Though she wanted a career in music, she was persuaded to take up her true calling—zoology. In spite of gender, race, and educational barriers firmly in place at the time, Young’s dedicated commitment to science was unfailing.
Young was born in Clifton Forge, Virginia, in 1899 and grew up in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania. In 1916, she enrolled at Howard University, originally enrolling to study music. Not until 1921 did she take her first science course, general zoology. Her professor was the eminent Ernest Everett Just, the head of the Howard University biology department. Young got a C grade.
Despite Young’s average performance, Just saw some promise in her and convinced her to pursue a career in the sciences. She took only two other science courses (vertebrate embryology and invertebrate embryology) and earned a grade of B in both. In 1923, she received her bachelor’s degree, seven years after enrolling at Howard.
After graduation, Young accepted a position as assistant professor in zoology at Howard and saved enough money from her meager salary to begin studying for her master’s degree on a part-time basis at the University of Chicago. There, she excelled in her studies. At the same time, she was working with Just as a research assistant, studying the internal structures of the Paramecium that allow the creature to regulate salt concentrations. As a result of this significant research, Young published her first scientific paper, “On the Excretory Apparatus in the Paramecium,” in the September 12, 1924 issue of Science. She was just 25 years old. The paper’s appearance made her the first black woman to research and publish professionally in her field. In addition, it appeared two months before a similar paper by the noted Russian cell physiologist Dmitriy Nasonov. In 1926, Young was elected to Sigma Xi, the national honor society for the biological sciences, a distinction that is usually awarded to doctoral candidates. She earned her master’s degree that same year; her future looked bright.
The summer of 1927 was the first of many that Young would spend with Just conducting research at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. They worked together well. She had gained his respect for her skill with the technical and theoretical aspects of the research, and he said her work surpassed his own in technical excellence. At Woods Hole’s laboratories, Young and Just studied fertilization. Working with a variety of marine organisms, they studied the effects of ultraviolet light on eggs, research that Young would later continue on her own.
During the summer of 1928, Just’s wife, Ethel, did not accompany him to Woods Hole, as she had before. Just and Young interacted well with the other researchers, both professionally and socially. They went to
At a Glance…
Born in Clifton Forge, VA in 1899; died on November 9, 1964 in New Orleans; Education: Howard University, bachelors, 1923, University of Chicago, masters, 1926, University of Pennsylvania, doctorate, zoology, 1935.
Career: Howard University, assistant professor, research assistant, interim department head, until 1936; Marine Biological Laboratory, researcher; North Carolina College for Negroes, assistant professor; Shaw University, Biology Dept., head; professor: Paul Quinn College, Jackson State, Southern University; kindergarten teacher.
dinner with some of the married couples who were also conducting research at Woods Hole. Young also socialized with the other young scientists, going on picnics and day trips around Cape Cod.
The gossip around the Howard campus said Just and Young had a relationship that went beyond a professional interest. Regardless, Just gave Young increasing responsibilities in the Department of Zoology. She stood in for him as acting department head in early 1929 as Just traveled to Europe on a grant. After he returned, Young returned to the University of Chicago to pursue her doctorate in zoology in the fall of 1929. There she studied with Just’s own mentor, Frank Lillie, under whose supervision she had worked at the Marine Biological Laboratory during the summer of 1929.
In the familiar surroundings of Chicago, Young had no trouble adjusting to the routine of coursework, which occupied her first semester. However, she didn’t do as well in her doctorate-level classes as she had in her master’s classes. Part of the problem may have been that her eyes were bothering her; it later turned out that she had done them permanent damage during the ultraviolet light experiments at Woods Hole.
The week before the qualifying exam, scheduled for January 10, 1930, Just again left for Europe. Young failed the exam miserably. Simple questions that she had dealt with frequently in her courses, in her teaching, and in her research stumped her.
Young left Chicago, hoping to find some rest and relief from the pressures she had been under—her own studies, the exam, the administrative responsibilities Just had left to her. She wrote to Lillie, who was deeply concerned about her: “The trouble is for two years I’ve tried to keep going under responsibilities that were not wholly mine but were not shared, and the weight of it has simply worn me out.” In her letter, she revealed that she knew as early as August that “unless there was some relief” she would fail the exam.
Young’s failure to pass her comprehensives had a negative effect on her increasingly difficult relationship with Just. By 1933 he was gradually giving her less responsibility. By 1935 there was overt conflict between the two. Just called Young’s teaching “far below standards” and ultimately said he had “no respect” for her as a person. Young retorted that Just had deliberately distracted her from her scientific work and that where he had once supported her and encouraged her, he now threw up roadblocks that ranged from denying her access to equipment to refusing to read her scientific papers. In spring 1936, she was fired, supposedly for missing classes and misusing lab equipment.
Despite what had happened at Howard, Young still had allies, chief among them L.V. Heilbrunn, whom she had met through Woods Hole. She joined him at the University of Pennsylvania in 1937 to try again for her doctorate. This time, things went much better. Freed from the administrative duties she’d shouldered at Howard (and possibly, too, of the pressure of Just’s presence—or absence—in her life), she received a two-year grant from the General Education Board and borrowed money to pay for the third and final year. She completed her dissertation on “The Indirect Effects of Roentgen Rays on Certain Marine Eggs”, which built upon research she had published with Heilbrunn in the Biological Bulletin in 1935.
Throughout her ups and downs, Young struggled to make ends meet financially and to support her ailing mother. She had no other relatives to turn to for support. This may explain why she had leaned on Just so much, and why his apparent betrayal of her, both as a scientist and as a woman, seemed to have such a devastating effect. After earning her doctorate, Young took a post at the North Carolina College for Negroes (NCCN) in Raleigh as assistant professor. She soon became head of the biology department at Shaw University, which was also in Raleigh, N.C.
Despite her happiness with Shaw’s atmosphere, Young remained under tremendous stress due to her financial troubles. She left there in 1947 to return to NCCN as a professor of biology. She then held positions at Paul Quinn College in Texas, Jackson (Mississippi) State, and Southern University in Louisiana.
Young’s mother died in 1953, and mental problems, which had been developing over the years, began to plague her. She lost the three positions and was penniless. She resorted to a three-hour-a-day job teaching kindergarten at a poor Catholic parish in Waco, Texas.
She did manage to briefly hold another post at Jackson State, but left there for treatment at the Mississippi State Mental Asylum. She was discharged on December 21, 1962, and took a temporary position as visiting lecturer in biology at Southern University. She died on November 9, 1964 in New Orleans, poor and alone.
(with L.V. Heilbrunn) “Indirect Effects of Radiation on Sea Urchin Eggs.” Biological Bulletin, 1935.
“On the Excretory Apparatus in Paramecium.” Science, September 12, 1924.
Manning, Kenneth R. “Roger Arliner Young: Scientist.” Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women 6, no. 2 (Fall 1989): 3-7.
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