Just, Ernest

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Just, Ernest

August 14, 1883
October 27, 1941

Zoologist and educator Ernest Everett Just was born in Charleston, South Carolina, the son of Charles Fraser Just, a carpenter and wharf builder, and his wife, Mary Mathews Cooper Just, a teacher and civic leader. His early education was received at a school run by his mother, the Frederick Deming, Jr. Industrial School. In 1896 he entered the teacher-training program of the Colored Normal, Industrial, Agricultural and Mechanical College (South Carolina State College) in Orangeburg, South Carolina. After graduating in 1899 he attended Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, New Hampshire (19001903), before proceeding to Dartmouth College. At Dartmouth he majored in biology and minored in Greek and history. He received an A.B., graduating magna cum laude, in 1907.

Essentially, two career options were available to an African American with Just's academic background: teaching in a black institution or preaching in a black church. Just chose the former, beginning his career in the fall of 1907 as an instructor in English and rhetoric at Howard University. In 1909 he taught English and biology, and a year later he assumed a permanent full-time commitment in zoology as part of a general revitalization of the science curriculum at Howard. He also taught physiology in the medical school. A devoted teacher, he served as faculty adviser to a group that was trying to establish a nationwide fraternity of black students. The Alpha chapter of Omega Psi Phi was organized at Howard in 1911, and Just became its first honorary member. In 1912 he married a fellow Howard faculty member, Ethel Highwarden. They had three childrenMargaret, Highwarden, and Maribel.

Meanwhile, Just laid plans to pursue scientific research. In 1909 he started studying at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, under the eminent scientist Frank Rattray Lillie, MBL director and head of the zoology department at the University of Chicago. He also served as Lillie's research assistant. Their relationship quickly blossomed into a full and equal scientific collaboration. By the time Just earned a Ph.D. in zoology at the University of Chicago in 1916, he had already coauthored a paper with Lillie and written several on his own.

The two worked on fertilization in marine animals. Just's first paper, "The Relation of the First Cleavage Plane to the Entrance Point of the Sperm," appeared in Biological Bulletin in 1912 and was cited frequently as a classic and authoritative study. He went on to champion a theorythe fertilizin theoryfirst proposed by Lillie, who postulated the existence of a substance called "fertilizin" as the essential biochemical catalyst in the fertilization of the egg by the sperm. In 1915 Just was awarded the NAACP's first Spingarn Medal in recognition of his scientific contributions and "foremost service to his race."

Science was for Just a deeply felt avocation, an activity he looked forward to doing each summer at the MBL as a welcome respite from his heavy teaching and administrative responsibilities at Howard. Under the circumstances his productivity was extraordinary. Within ten years (19191928), he published thirty-five articles, mostly relating to his studies on fertilization. Though proud of his output, he yearned for a position or environment in which he could pursue his research full-time.

In 1928 Just received a substantial grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund that allowed him a change of environment and longer stretches of time for his research. His first excursion, in 1929, took him to Italy, where he worked for seven months at the Stazione Zoologica in Naples. He traveled to Europe ten times over the course of the next decade, staying for periods ranging from three weeks to two years. He worked primarily at the Stazione Zoologica; the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institut für Biologie in Berlin; and the Station Biologique in Roscoff, France.

In Europe Just wrote a book synthesizing many of the scientific theories, philosophical ideas, and experimental results of his career. The book was published under the title Biology of the Cell Surface in 1939. Its thesis, that the ectoplasm or cell surface has a fundamental role in development, did not receive much attention at the time but later became a major focus of scientific investigation. Also in 1939 he published a compendium of experimental advice under the title Basic Methods for Experiments on Eggs of Marine Animals. In 1940 Just was interned briefly in France following the German invasion and then released to return to America, where he died a year later. Just was featured on a U.S. postage stamp in 1996.

See also Howard University; Science


Gould, Stephen Jay. "Just in the Middle: A Solution to the Mechanist-Vitalist Controversy." Natural History (January 1984): 2433.

Manning, Kenneth R. Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

kenneth r. manning (1996)