Dr. Ernest Just 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.
Ernest Everett Just was born August 14, 1983 in South Carolina to Charles Frazier Just Jr. and Mary Matthews Just. When Ernest was four years old, both his father and grandfather died, and his mother became the sole supporter of him, his younger brother, and his younger sister, teaching at an African American school in Charleston. During the summer, Mary Just 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.
Ernest Just prepared for college at Kimball Hall Academy, New Hampshire, where he completed the four-year course of study in only three years. In the graduating Dartmouth College class of 1907, Ernest Just was the only person to be graduated magna cum laude. He won special honors in both botany and history.
In 1907, Dr. Just began to teach at Howard University where he was appointed head of the Department of Zoology in 1912. At Howard, he also served as a professor in the medical school and head of the Department of Physiology until his death. The first Spingarn Medal was awarded to the reluctant and modest Ernest Just by the NAACP in 1915 for his accomplishments as a pure scientist.
“We feel the beauty of nature because we are part of nature and because we know that however much in our separate domains we abstract from the unity of nature, this unity remains. Although we may deal with particulars, we return finally to the whole pattern woven out of these.”
Beginning in 1909, Dr. Ernest Just began to conduct research as a research assistant during the summer months for Professor Frank Lillie, at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Ernest Just produced ground-breaking research in cell biology at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Conducting thousands of experiments studying the fertilization of the marine mammal cell, Dr. Just was able to successfully challenge Jaacque Loeb’s theory of artificial parthenogenesis in 1922. Using his research conducted at Wood’s Hole, Ernest Just published his first book entitled, Basic Methods for Experiments on Eggs of Marine Mammals. Despite his part-time appointment, Ernest Just published over seventy scientific papers during his studies there.
In 1916, Ernest Just received the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy magna cum laudefrom the University of Chicago in experimental embryology, with a thesis on the mechanics of fertilization.
Just married high school teacher Ethel Highwarden on June 26, 1912, and together they
had three children—Margaret, Highwarden and Maribel—before divorcing in 1939. That
same year, Just married Hedwig Schnetzler, a philosophy student he had met in Berlin.
In 1940, the German Nazis imprisoned Just in a camp, but, with the help of his wife’s
father, he was released. After making their way out of France, the couple gave birth to
daughter Elisabeth.Earnest Just died of pancreatic cancer in Washington, D.C., on
October 27, 1941. He is buried at the Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, Maryland.