Childhood & Early Life
Ernst Everett Just was born on August 14, 1883, to Mary Matthews Just and Charles Jr. in South Carolina, the United States of America. He lost his father at the age of four. It was his mother who raised him single-handedly.
In his childhood, he fell ill with typhoid for six weeks. His weakness stayed for a long time after he was cured. It affected his memory and learning skills, including reading and writing. However, he gradually relearned and revived his abilities.
When was 13, his mother sent him to ‘Colored Normal Industrial Agricultural and Mechanical College of South Carolina,’ later known as the ‘South Carolina State University,’ Orangeburg, so that he could become a teacher.
When he was 16, he moved to Meridian, New Hampshire, along with his mother, where he attended ‘Kimball Union Academy,’ a college-preparatory high school.
He lost his mother at the age of 17.
He completed the 4-year course within three years and graduated from ‘Kimball’ in 1903 with flying colors.
He graduated magna cum laude from ‘Dartmouth College’ in Hanover, New Hampshire. He was also a ‘Rufus Choate’ scholar for two years and was elected to ‘Phi Beta Kappa Society.’
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Though Just passed out of ‘Dartmouth College’ with flying colors, he was not able to find a teaching job at white colleges or universities due to the discrimination against African-Americans. Hence, in 1907, he joined ‘Howard University’ (HU), historically a black university, in Washington D.C.
He began by teaching rhetoric and English in 1907. Within two years, he started teaching biology and was made in-charge of the newly formed department in 1910.
In the summer of 1909, he worked as a research assistant to Frank R Lillie, head of the department of zoology, the ‘University of Chicago’ and director of the ‘Marine Biological Laboratory’(MBL) Woods Hole, Massachusetts. He spent all the summers at the ‘MBL’ until the next twenty years, barring one.
At the ‘MBL,’ he studied invertebrate zoology in 1909, and the following year, he pursued embryology. These courses made him an expert in handling eggs and embryo of marine invertebrates, and because of his skill, he was sought after by researchers. He now made a leap from a student apprentice to a scientist of global recognition. He was considered as “a genius in the design of experiments.”
In 1910, a new department of botany was set up at Howard and he was made its in charge, while, in 1912, he was appointed head of the newly established zoology department at Howard and served in this role until his death in 1941.
Three years later, he joined the ‘University of Chicago’ for doctoral studies. On February 12, 1915, he became the first person to be awarded the ‘Spingarn Medal’ by the ‘National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’ (NAACP) as an honor for his contribution to scientific development and improving the conditions of the African-American race.
While studying at the ‘University of Chicago,’ he juggled with his responsibilities at ‘Howard University,’ which delayed the completion of the degree. He, however, got it in 1916. His dissertation was on the mechanics of fertilization, under the guidance of Lille. He published and co-published with Lille many research papers while pursuing his Ph.D.
Despite his accomplishments, Just could not land a job as a teacher in any of the reputed institutes/universities due to racial discrimination and was compelled to work with ‘Howard University,’ but he was disappointed as ‘HU’ was unable to support his projects.
In 1929, he conducted experiments at the ‘Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn’ in Naples, Italy, and in the next year, he became the first American to be invited to the ‘Kaiser Wilhelm Institute’ in Berlin, Germany. Until 1938, he kept traveling to Europe and conducted research. However, he stopped working in Germany in 1933 when Nazis seized power and shifted his European base to the marine laboratory at Roscoff, France.
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His experience in Europe was pleasant, as he did not face racial bias from the Europeans, and interestingly when it happened on a few occasions, it came from Americans.
In 1939, he authored two books, ‘Basic Methods for Experiments on Eggs of Marine Animals’ and ‘The Biology of the Cell Surface,’ and also published more than seventy research articles in the fields of cytology, fertilization, and embryonic development.
Family, Personal Life & Death
Just’s father, Charles Jr., was a builder. His mother, Mary, worked with the African-American school in Charleston as a teacher and was the sole breadwinner of the family, which included Just’s younger brother and younger sister, after Charles’ untimely death.
To make extra money, Mary worked in the phosphate mines of James Island, during the summer. She was instrumental in establishing a township in James Island, which is now incorporated and called Maryville, in her memory.
Just married Ethel Highwarden on June 12, 1912. She taught German at Howard. They had three children: Margaret, Highwarden, and Maribel. They divorced in 1939.
He married Hedwig Schnetzler, a philosophy student from Berlin in 1939. They had a daughter, Elisabeth.
He was taken prisoner of war by Germans after they attacked France in 1940. But with the help of Hedwig’s father, he was released. He returned to the U.S.A. in September 1940.
Just was ill before his imprisonment, and it worsened in captivity and during his journey to the U.S.A.
He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer toward the end of 1941 and passed away on October 27, 1941.
Just, along with three students at Howrad, founded the ‘Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc.’ on the ‘HU’ campus in 1911.
‘Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just’ is a biography by Kenneth R. Manning, published in 1983. He won the ‘Pfizer Prize’ in the same year. The book was also nominated for the ‘Pulitzer Prize’ under the biography category.
The annual Ernest E. Just Symposium to encourage people of color to take up courses in biomedical sciences and healthcare was started in 2000 at ‘Medical University of South Carolina.’
The ‘National Science Foundation’ sponsored a symposium in 2008 in recognition of Just’s work at Howard. Several speakers at the seminar contributed their research articles to the 2009 special issue of the journal ‘Molecular Reproduction and Development,’ dedicated to Just.
From 1994, the ‘American Society for Cell Biology’ has held sessions and established a prize in his memory. His alma maters, the ‘University of Chicago’ and ‘Dartmouth College,’ conduct seminars and offer awards in his honor.
He features on the list of ‘100 Greatest African-Americans’ compiled by Molefi Kete Asante, an American philosopher and professor.
An international symposium was organized at the ‘Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn’ in 2013.
‘The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett Just,’ a children’s book was authored by Melina Mangal and illustrated by Luisa Uribe in 2018.