Ernest Everett Just

Last updated
Ernest Everett Just
Ernest Everett Just.jpg
Born(1883-08-14)14 August 1883
Died27 October 1941(1941-10-27) (aged 58)
Nationality American
Alma mater Dartmouth College
University of Chicago
Known for marine biology
Awards Spingarn Medal (1915)
Scientific career
Fields biology, zoology, botany, history, and sociology
Doctoral advisor Frank R. Lillie

Ernest Everett Just (August 14, 1883 – October 27, 1941) was a pioneering African-American biologist, academic and science writer. Just's primary legacy is his recognition of the fundamental role of the cell surface in the development of organisms. In his work within marine biology, cytology and parthenogenesis, he advocated the study of whole cells under normal conditions, rather than simply breaking them apart in a laboratory setting.


Early life

Ernest Everett Just was born in South Carolina to Charles Jr. and Mary Matthews Just on August 14, 1883. His father and grandfather, Charles Sr., were builders. When Ernest was four years old, both his father and grandfather died (the former of alcoholism). [1] Just's mother became the sole supporter of Just, his younger brother, and his younger sister. Mary Matthews Just taught at an African-American school in Charleston to support her family. During the summer, she worked in the phosphate mines on James Island. Noticing that there was much vacant land near the island, Mary persuaded several black families to move there to farm. The town they founded, now incorporated in the West Ashley area of Charleston, was eventually named Maryville in her honor. [2]

When Just was young, he became severely sick for six weeks with typhoid. Once the fever passed, he had a hard time recuperating, and his memory had been greatly affected. He had previously learned to read and write, but now had to relearn. His mother had been very sympathetic in teaching him but after a while, she gave up on him. Then one day, he read his first page by himself, this seemed miraculous. He kept his new secret to himself for a month before telling his mother because he felt she had hurt him with her unreasonable expectations. [3]

Hoping Just would become a teacher, at the age of 13 his mother sent him to the "Colored Normal Industrial Agricultural and Mechanical College of South Carolina", the only 1890 land grant school for the education of Negros in South Carolina, later known as South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Believing that schools for blacks in the south were inferior, Just and his mother thought it better for him to go north. At the age of 16, Just enrolled at the Meriden, New Hampshire, college-preparatory high school Kimball Union Academy. During Just's second year at Kimball, he returned home for a visit only to learn that his mother had been buried an hour before he arrived. [3] Despite this hardship, Just completed the four-year program in only three years and graduated in 1903 with the highest grades in his class. [4]

Just went on to graduate magna cum laude from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. [5] Just won special honors in zoology, and distinguished himself in botany, history, and sociology as well. He was also honored as a Rufus Choate scholar for two years and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. [4] Just was also a candidate to deliver a commencement speech, but was not chosen because the faculty "decided it would be a faux pas to allow the only black in the graduating class to address the crowd of parents, alumni, and benefactors. It would have made too glaring the fact that Just had won just about every prize imaginable." [3]

Founding of Omega Psi Phi

On November 17, 1911, Ernest Just and three Howard University students (Edgar Amos Love, Oscar James Cooper, and Frank Coleman), established the Omega Psi Phi fraternity on the campus of Howard. Love, Cooper, and Coleman had approached Just about establishing the first black fraternity on campus. Howard's faculty and administration initially opposed the idea of establishing the fraternity, fearing that it could pose a political threat to Howard's white administration. However, Just worked to mediate the controversy and, despite the initial doubts, Omega Psi Phi, Alpha Chapter, was chartered on Howard's campus on December 15, 1911. Omega Psi Phi was incorporated under the laws of the District of Columbia on October 28, 1914. [1]


When he graduated from Dartmouth, Just faced the same problems as all black college graduates of his time: 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. [6] 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. On June 12, 1912, he married Ethel Highwarden, who taught German at Howard University. They had three children: Margaret, Highwarden, and Maribel.

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. [7] 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." [3] 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. [7] However, in June 1916, Just received his degree. It was 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. [6] 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." [8]

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 race to remain attached to Howard, an institution that could not give full opportunity to ambitions such as the ones Just had. [7] In 1929, Just traveled 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. Scientists treated him like a celebrity and encouraged him to extend his theory on the ectoplasm to other species. [7] Just 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. [3] 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. [9] 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. [10] 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. [11] His work on experimental parthenogenesis informed Johannes Holtfreter's concept of "autoinduction" [12] which, in turn, has broadly influenced modern evolutionary and developmental biology. [13] 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. [14] [15] [16] [17] 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. [3] [18] 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. [7]


At the outbreak of World War II, Just was working at the Station Biologique in Roscoff, researching the paper that would become Unsolved Problems of General Biology. Although the French government requested foreigners to evacuate the country, Just remained to complete his work. In 1940, Germany invaded France and Just was briefly imprisoned in a prisoner-of-war camp. With the help of the family of his second wife, a German citizen, he was rescued by the U.S. State Department and he returned to his home country in September 1940. However, Just had been very ill for months prior to his encampment and his condition deteriorated in prison and on the journey back to the U.S. In the fall of 1941, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and died shortly thereafter. [19]


Just was the subject of the 1983 biography Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just by Kenneth R. Manning. The book received the 1983 Pfizer Award and was a finalist for the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. [20] [21] In 1996, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring Just. [22]

Beginning in 2000, the Medical University of South Carolina has hosted the annual Ernest E. Just Symposium to encourage non-white students to pursue careers in biomedical sciences and health professions. [23] In 2008, a National Science Foundation-funded symposium honoring Just and his scientific work was held on the campus of Howard University, where he was a faculty member from 1907 until his death in 1941. Many of the speakers at the symposium contributed papers to a special issue of the journal Molecular Reproduction and Development dedicated to Just that was published in 2009. Since 1994 the American Society for Cell Biology has given an award [24] and hosted a lecture in Just's name. At least two of the institutions with which Just was associated have established prizes or symposia in his name: The University of Chicago, where Just received his PhD (in zoology, in 1916), and Dartmouth College, where he received his undergraduate degree. In 2013, an international symposium honoring Just was held at the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn in Naples, Italy, where Just had worked starting in 1929. [25] [26] [27] [28]

In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante included Just on his list of the 100 Greatest African Americans . [29] A children's book about Just, titled The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett Just, written by Mélina Mangal and illustrated by Luisa Uribe, was published by Millbrook Press in November 2018.

Just believed that "life as an event lies in a combination of chemical stuffs exhibiting physical properties; and it is in this combination, i.e., its behavior and activities, and in it alone that we can seek life.". [30] He also wrote: "[L]ife is the harmonious organization of events, the resultant of a communion of structures and reactions", [10] and "We [scientists] have often striven to prove life as wholly mechanistic, starting with the hypothesis that organisms are machines! Living substance is such because it possesses this organization--something more than the sum of its minutest parts" [31] He argued forcefully that the "ectoplasm," the outer region of the cytoplasm, and not the nucleus, constitutes the heart of the dynamic cell. He was convinced that the surface of the egg cell possesses an "independent irritability," which enables the egg (and all cells) to respond productively to diverse stimuli. [32]

Related Research Articles

Zoology is the branch of biology that studies the animal kingdom, including the structure, embryology, evolution, classification, habits, and distribution of all animals, both living and extinct, and how they interact with their ecosystems. The term is derived from Ancient Greek ζῷον, zōion, i.e. "animal" and λόγος, logos, i.e. "knowledge, study".

Marine Biological Laboratory international center for research and education in biology, biomedicine and ecology

The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) is an international center for research and education in biological and environmental science. Founded in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1888, the MBL is a private, nonprofit institution affiliated with the University of Chicago. After being independent for most of its history, it became officially affiliated with the university on July 1, 2013. It also collaborates with numerous other institutions.

Howard Robert Horvitz is an American biologist best known for his research on the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans, for which he was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, together with Sydney Brenner and John E. Sulston.

John Gurdon English developmental biologist (born 1933)

Sir John Bertrand Gurdon is an English developmental biologist. He is best known for his pioneering research in nuclear transplantation and cloning. He was awarded the Lasker Award in 2009. In 2012, he and Shinya Yamanaka were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for the discovery that mature cells can be converted to stem cells.

Eric F. Wieschaus American geneticist

Eric Francis Wieschaus is an American evolutionary developmental biologist and 1995 Nobel Prize-winner.

Randy Schekman Nobel prize winning American cell biologist

Randy Wayne Schekman is an American cell biologist at the University of California, Berkeley and former editor-in-chief of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In 2011, he was announced as the editor of eLife, a new high-profile open-access journal published by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society and the Wellcome Trust launching in 2012. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1992. Schekman shared the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with James Rothman and Thomas C. Südhof for their ground-breaking work on cell membrane vesicle trafficking.

Frank Rattray Lillie American zoologist

Frank Rattray Lillie was an American zoologist and an early pioneer of the study of embryology. Born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Lillie moved to the United States in 1891 to study for a summer at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Lillie formed a lifelong association with the laboratory, eventually rising to become its director in 1908. His efforts developed the MBL into a full-time institution.

Gerald Schatten is an American stem cell researcher with interests in cell, developmental, and reproductive biology. He is Professor and Vice-Chair of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences and Professor of Cell Biology and Physiology at the University of Pittsburgh, where he is also Director of the Division of Developmental and Regenerative Medicine at the university's School of Medicine. Additionally, he is Deputy Director of the Magee-Womens Research Institute and Director of the Pittsburgh Development Center.

Katsuma Dan was a Japanese embryologist and cell biologist. He was born in 1904 in Tokyo, the youngest son of Baron Dan Takuma, president of the Mitsui Gomei Kaisha Corporation. Takuma Dan was educated in the United States, graduating from MIT in 1878. He was one of the first foreign students to be educated at MIT and later, as president of the Japan Steel Works, he initiated and maintained close research ties with The Institute.

Richard Losick American molecular biologist

Richard Marc Losick is an American molecular biologist. He is the Maria Moors Cabot Professor of Biology at Harvard University, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, He is especially noted for his investigations of endospore formation in Gram positive organisms such as Bacillus subtilis.

Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn research institute in Naples, Italy

The Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn is a research institute in Naples, Italy, devoted to basic research in biology. Research is largely interdisciplinary involving the fields of evolution, biochemistry, molecular biology, neurobiology, cell biology, biological oceanography, marine botany, molecular plant biology, benthic ecology, and ecophysiology.

Roger Arliner Young American zoologist

Roger Arliner Young was an American scientist of zoology, biology, and marine biology. She was the first African American woman to receive a doctorate degree in zoology.

Janet Rossant biologist

Janet Rossant, is a developmental biologist well known for her contributions to the understanding of the role of genes in embryo development. She is a world renowned leader in developmental biology. Her current research interests focus on stem cells, molecular genetics, and developmental biology. Specifically, she uses cellular and genetic manipulation techniques to study how genes control both normal and abnormal development of early mouse embryos. Rossant has discovered information on embryo development, how multiple types of stem cells are established, and the mechanisms by which genes control development. In 1998, her work helped lead to the discovery of the trophoblast stem cell, which has assisted in showing how congenital anomalies in the heart, blood vessels, and placenta can occur.

Shinya Inoué was a Japanese American biophysicist and cell biologist, a member of the National Academy of Sciences. His research field was the visualization of dynamic processes within living cells using light microscopy.

Johannes Holtfreter was a German-American developmental biologist whose primary focus was the “organizer,” a part of the embryo essential for the development of the proper body plan.

Edward M. De Robertis American embyologist

Edward Michael De Robertis is an American embryologist and Professor at University of California, Los Angeles, whose work has contributed to the discovery of conserved molecular mechanisms of embryonic inductions that cause tissue differentiations during animal development.

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. Just (1883-1941) was a pioneering African American biologist and educator. The book, which was published by Oxford University Press, provided an in-depth study of Just's research and discoveries within fertilization, early embryonic development, and the properties of the cell surface, and it also detailed the difficult social environment facing African American scientists within U.S. academia during the first part of the 20th century.

The Biology of the Cell Surface is a book by American biologist Ernest Everett Just. It was published by P. Blakiston’s Son & Co in 1939.

Amy S. Gladfelter is a quantitative cell biologist and Associate Professor of Biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she mainly investigates cell cycle control and the septin cytoskeleton. She discovered that nuclei in multinucleated cells can undergo the cell cycle asynchronously despite sharing a common cytoplasm and continues to investigate spatial organization of the cell and cellular components. Additionally, she studies the assembly of the septin cytoskeleton and the how aberrant septin structure affects their function. She has trained and mentored many undergraduate and graduate students, as well as postdoctoral fellows. The American Society for Cell Biology named her the winner of the 2015 WICB Mid-Career Award for Excellence in Research for her contributions to the field. Gladfelter was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Faculty Scholar in 2016.

John Philip "Trink" Trinkaus was an American embryologist and one of the world's leading experts on in vivo cell motility.


  1. 1 2 The Capital Region Ques, accessed March 14, 2013.
  2. Donna Jacobs, "A BIT ON MARYVILLE - The People, Trials, and Tribulations of one of Charleston's first black enclaves" Archived 2013-05-31 at the Wayback Machine , West Of.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Manning, Kenneth R. (1983). Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just . New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN   978-0195034981.
  4. 1 2 Ernest Just, Black Inventor Museum, accessed October 11, 2009.
  5. Kelsey, Elizabeth. "Expansive Vision, Ahead of His Time: Dartmouth celebrates biologist E. E. Just, Class of 1907". Dartmouth Life. Dartmouth College . Retrieved 2009-01-28.
  6. 1 2 Lee, Edward (March 2006). "Ernest Everett Just". Blacfax: 15–16.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 Lillie, Frank (1942). "Obituary". Science. 95 (2453): 10–11. doi:10.1126/science.95.2453.10. PMID   17752140.
  8. Jeffery, William R. (1983), "Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941): a dedication. Biological Bulletin165: 487.
  9. "Ernest Everett Just". San Jose State University Virtual Museum. Archived from the original on 2009-06-04. Retrieved 2009-10-16.
  10. 1 2 Just, E. E. (1939), The Biology of the Cell Surface. Philadelphia: P. Blakiston's Son and Co., Inc.
  11. Byrnes, W. Malcolm; William R. Eckberg (2006). "Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941)--an early ecological developmental biologist". Dev. Biol. 296 (1) (August 1, 2006), pp. 1–11.
  12. Byrnes, W. Malcolm (2009) Ernest Everett Just, Johannes Holtfreter, and the origin of certain concepts in embryo morphogenesis. Molecular Reproduction and Development 76 (11): 912-921
  13. Kirschner, M. W.; J. C. Gerhart (2005), The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin's Dilemma. New Haven: Yale University Press
  14. Just, E. E. (1939), "Water" In: The Biology of the Cell Surface. Philadelphia: P. Blakiston's Son and Co., Inc., pp. 124–146.
  15. Charras, G. T.; T. J. Mitchison; L. Mahedevan (2009), "Animal cell hydraulics". J. Cell Sci. 122 (18): 3233–3241.
  16. Needleman, D.; J. Brugues (2014), "Determining physical principles of subcellular organization". Dev. Cell 29: 135–138.
  17. Byrnes, W. Malcolm; Stuart A. Newman (2014), "Ernest Everett Just: Egg and Embryo as Excitable Systems". Journal of Experimental Zoology Part B (Molecular and Developmental Evolution) 322 (4): 191–201.
  18. Gilbert, Scott F. (1988), "Cellular politics: Ernest Everett Just, Richard B. Goldschmidt, and the attempt to reconcile embryology and genetics". In: Rainer R., D. Benson, J. Maienschein (eds), The American Development of Biology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 311–346.
  19. Byrnes, W. Malcolm; Eckberg, William R. (2006). "Ernest Everett Just (1883–1941)—An early ecological developmental biologist". Developmental Biology. 296: 1–11. doi:10.1016/j.ydbio.2006.04.445. PMID   16712833.
  20. "Pulitzer for Fiction Won by Author of 'Ironweed'". The Spokesman-Review. April 16, 1984. Retrieved 2009-10-16.
  21. Garland E. Allen (November 1998). "Life Sciences in the Twentieth Century". History of Science Society. Archived from the original on 2009-04-03. Retrieved 2009-10-16.
  22. "Dr. Ernest E. Just Honored on New Black Heritage Stamp". Jet. February 26, 1996. p. 19.
  23. Shantae D. James (March 20, 2003). "Summary Statement of the 3rd Annual Ernest E. Just Symposium". Medical University of South Carolina. Archived from the original on September 15, 2006. Retrieved 2009-10-23.
  24. "E.E. Just Lecture Award" Archived 2014-09-03 at the Wayback Machine , ASCB.
  25. L. Santella & JT. Chun, "International Symposium - The dynamically active egg: The legacy of Ernest Everett Just" Archived 2014-09-04 at the Wayback Machine , Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn di Napoli, 13 maggio 2013.
  26. Cristina Zagaria, "Just, biologo afroamericano che trovò la libertà a Napoli", La Repubblica, 11-05-2013.
  27. W. Malcolm Byrnes, "Walking in the Footsteps of Ernest Everett Just at the Stazione Zoologica in Naples: Celebration of a Friendship", Howard University, May 15, 2013.
  28. W. Malcolm Byrnes, Sulle orme di E.E. Just alla Stazione Zoologica di Napoli: celebrazione di un’amicizia, researchitaly, 01/07/2013.
  29. Asante, Molefi Kete (2002), 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. ISBN   1-57392-963-8.
  30. Just, Ernest Everett (1988). The Biology of the Cell Surface (Facsimile ed.). New York: Garland Pub. ISBN   978-0824013806.
  31. Just, E. E. (1933), "Cortical cytoplasm and evolution". Am. Nat.67: 20–29.
  32. Newman, Stuart A. (2009), "E. E. Just's 'independent irritability' revisited: The activated egg as excitable soft matter" Archived 2016-01-18 at the Wayback Machine . Molecular Reproduction and Development 76 (11): 966–974.

Further reading