Marine biologist. Just was born in Charleston on August 14, 1883, the son of carpenter Charles Frazier Just and Mary Matthews Cooper. His early education was in a small, segregated school operated by his mother on James Island, the Frederick Deming, Jr. Industrial School. At age twelve, Just enrolled in the teacher training program at the Colored Normal, Industrial, Agricultural and Mechanical College of South Carolina in Orangeburg. Graduating in 1899, Just left South Carolina to attend the Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, New Hampshire. With diligence, and aided by scholarships, Just enrolled at Dartmouth College, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 1907. As an African American, Just had little opportunity to pursue a career in science. Instead he joined the faculty of Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he taught English, biology, and zoology. On June 26, 1912, he married Ethel Highwarden, a fellow Howard faculty member. The couple had three children and later divorced.
Despite his teaching and administrative commitments, Just found time to pursue scientific research. In 1909 he was invited to the prestigious Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where he served as a research assistant. After several summers of study and a year’s leave of absence from Howard, Just earned a doctorate in zoology from the University of Chicago in 1916. By this time, he had already established himself as an authority on fertilization, publishing his first paper in 1912 and receiving the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s first Springarn Medal in recognition of his scientific work and “service to his race.” There followed, for the remainder of his life, international recognition of his work and publications—especially in Europe—together with frustration and bitterness, because no scientific appointments were made available to him. Of his situation, Just once observed, “You see, I have a profession, but no position.” Nevertheless, between 1919 and 1928, he published no fewer than thirty-five scientific articles, primarily on fertilization.
In 1928 Just received a sizable grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which allowed him to pursue research in Europe. Over the next decade, he made at least ten trips to Europe, undertaking research at such prestigious institutions as the Stazione Zoologica in Italy, the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institut für Biologie in Germany, and the Station Biologique in France. On August 11, 1939, he married his German assistant, Maid Hedwig Schnetzler. They had one daughter. That same year, Just published Biology of the Cell Surface, a synthesis of much of his life’s work, and Basic Methods for Experiments on Eggs of Marine Animals, a book of experimental advice.
Just died of pancreatic cancer in Washington, D.C., on October 27, 1941. The distinguished psychiatrist Ben Karpman wrote of his friend’s passing: “Professor Just’s life was the struggle of a soul in pain. Optimism and frustration struggled within him, and optimism lost.”
Manning, Kenneth R. Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Wynes, Charles E. “Ernest Everett Just: Marine Biologist, Man Extraordinaire.” Southern Studies 33 (spring 1984): 60–70.