Dr Ernest Everett Just

Ernest Just was a pioneering African American scientist. He was an outstanding research biologist and was known as the “scientist’s scientist”.  He studied egg fertilisation and the structure of cells, mainly how a fetus develops and how an animal cell functions. His first two years at college were lonely and discouraging but he saw them through.  This Black boy from South Carolina made himself one of the greatest scientists in the early part of 20th century.

He was not interested in awards and praise.  He just wanted to get on with his work.  In 1914 he even tried to refuse a medal, but anyway he was given the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Springarn Medal. The first to receive the medal. 

Although he tried to stay away from the limelight, the news of his work spread all over the world. 

In all, he wrote two major books and over sixty scientific papers. His book, the Biology of the Cell Surface, which was used in many U.S. colleges and universities, represented his lifetime of research, and was published in 1939, just two years before he died. The other book Basic methods for experiments on eggs of marine animals, was the scientists handbook for experimentation.

In his early years, Just’s father died. He was brought by his mother Mary Matthews Just.

She worked in the phosphate mines [on James Island near Charleston] and according to Hutcheson, “negotiated a solid investment in one of the sought-after plots in the village in 1888.” In Kenneth R. Manning’s biography of Ernest Just, Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just, Manning uses Just’s letters as supporting evidence that the [all Black] town was named for Ernest’s mother, Mary. He writes: “she became a strong community leader, canvassing the inhabitants, mostly men, and persuading them to transform the settlement into a town. They called the town, Maryville, after its prime mover.”

Internet archive and Charleston Public Library

When he graduated from Dartmouth, Just faced the same problems all black college graduates of his time did: no matter how brilliant they were or how high their grades were, it was almost impossible for black people to become faculty members at white colleges or universities. Just took what seemed to be the best choice available to him and accepted a teaching position at historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1907, Just first began teaching rhetoric and English, fields somewhat removed from his specialty. By 1909, however, he was teaching not only English but also Biology. 

In 1910, he was put in charge of a newly formed biology department by Howard’s president, Wilbur P. Thirkield and, in 1912, he became head of the new Department of Zoology, a position he held until his death in 1941. Not long after beginning his appointment at Howard, Just was introduced to Frank R. Lillie, the head of the Department of Zoology at the University of Chicago. Lillie, who was also director of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, invited Just to spend the summer of 1909 as his research assistant at the MBL. During this time and later, Just’s experiments focused mainly on the eggs of marine invertebrates. He investigated the fertilization reaction and the breeding habits of species such as Platynereis megalops, Nereis limbata, and Arbacia punctulata. For the next 20 or so years, Just spent every summer but one at the MBL.

While at the MBL, Just learned to handle marine invertebrate eggs and embryos with skill and understanding, and soon his expertise was in great demand by both junior and senior researchers alike. In 1915, Just took a leave of absence from Howard to enroll in an advanced academic program at the University of Chicago. That same year, Just, who was gaining a national reputation as an outstanding young scientist, was the first recipient of the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, which he received on February 12, 1915. The medal recognized his scientific achievements and his “foremost service to his race.” 

He began his graduate training with coursework at the MBL: in 1909 and 1910 he took courses in invertebrate zoology and embryology, respectively, there. His coursework continued in-residence at the University of Chicago. His duties at Howard delayed the completion of his coursework and his receipt of the Ph.D. degree. However, in June 1916, Just received his degree in zoology, with a thesis on the mechanics of fertilization. Just thereby became one of only a handful of blacks who had gained the doctoral degree from a major university. By the time he received his doctorate from Chicago, he had already published several research articles, both as a single author and a co-author with Lillie. 

During his tenure at Woods Hole, Just rose from student apprentice to internationally respected scientist. A careful and meticulous experimentalist, he was regarded as “a genius in the design of experiments.” He had explored other areas including: experimental parthenogenesis, cell division, hydration, dehydration in cells, UV carcinogenic radiation on cells, and physiology of development.

Just, however, became frustrated because he could not obtain an appointment at a major American university. He wanted a position that would provide a steady income and allow him to spend more time with his research. Just’s scientific career involved a constant struggle for an opportunity for research, “the breath of his life”. He was condemned by racism to remain attached to Howard, an institution that could not give full opportunity to ambitions such as the ones Just had. 

In 1929, Just travelled to Naples, Italy, where he conducted experiments at the prestigious zoological station “Anton Dohrn”. Then, in 1930, he became the first American to be invited to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin-Dahlem, Germany, where several Nobel Prize winners carried out research. Altogether from his first trip in 1929 to his last in 1938, Just made ten or more visits to Europe to pursue research. It was during this time, that Just co-authored on a research paper with a few other scientists, called, “General Cytology,” which Scientists treated him like a celebrity and encouraged him to extend his theory on the ectoplasm to other species. J

ust enjoyed working in Europe because he did not face as much discrimination there in comparison to the U.S. and when he did encounter racism, it invariably came from Americans. Beginning in 1933, when the Nazis began to take the control of the country, Just ceased his work in Germany. He later moved his European-based studies to Paris and to the marine laboratory at the French fishing village of Roscoff, located on the English channel.

Just authored two books, Basic Methods for Experiments on Eggs of Marine Animals (1939) and The Biology of the Cell Surface (1939), and he also published at least seventy papers in the areas of cytology, fertilization and early embryonic development. He discovered what is known as the fast block to polyspermy; he further elucidated the slow block, which had been discovered by Fol in the 1870s; and he showed that the adhesive properties of the cells of the early embryo are surface phenomena exquisitely dependent on developmental stage.

He believed that the conditions used for experiments in the laboratory should closely match those in nature; in this sense, he can be considered to have been an early ecological developmental biologist. His work on experimental parthenogenesis informed Johannes Holtfreter’s concept of “autoinduction” which, in turn, has broadly influenced modern evolutionary and developmental biology. His investigation of the movement of water into and out of living egg cells (all the while maintaining their full developmental potential) gave insights into internal cellular structure that is now being more fully elucidated using powerful biophysical tools and computational methods.

These experiments anticipated the non-invasive imaging of live cells that is being developed today. Although Just’s experimental work showed an important role for the cell surface and the layer below it, the “ectoplasm,” in development, it was largely and unfortunately ignored. This was true even with respect to scientists who emphasized the cell surface in their work. It was especially true of the Americans; with the Europeans, he fared somewhat better.

Ernest Just in Wikipedia

Sadly when the Nazis invaded France at the start of WWII, Ernest Just was interned and put into a prisoner of war camp. His second wife, Hedwig Schnetzler, negotiated his release and he returned to his home country of America. By that time he was already ill and he died on 27th October 1941. He was born on 14th August 1883.

Further reading

Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just is a biography of African-American biologist Ernest Everett Just, written in 1983 by Kenneth R. Manning, African American author who gained his PhD from Harvard University.

My Black History Dr. Ernest Everett Just

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