Ernest Just was born on August 14, 1883 in Charleston, South Carolina. His mother worked as a school teacher and his father, a dock worker, died when Ernest was only four years old, forcing him to have to work in the fields after school each day. Because high schools in the South provided such poor education at that time, Ernest’s mother decided to send him North to receive better schooling. Through hard work, Ernest was able to earn enough money to attend the Kimball Academy in New Hampshire. The Kimball Academy was an exclusive school and Just proved himself worthy by excelling in his classes. As the editor of the school newspaper and President of the debating team, Ernest completed the four year program in only three, graduating with honors as the valedictorian of his class.
In 1903, Just entered Dartmouth College and decided to become a research biologist specializing in cytology (the study of cells). Learning under the guidance of world famous zoologist William Patten, Just excelled and received degrees in history and biology. Upon graduation in 1907, he had already been elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honors fraternity, was named class valedictorian and was the only member of his class to graduate Magna Cum Laude.
In October 1907, Ernest Just was hired by Howard University in Washington, D.C. and would eventually become the head of the biology department while also heading the physiology department and serving as a member of the Medical School’s faculty. With all of these responsibilities, Just was still able to pursue a Ph.D. in Zoology, which he received in 1916 from the University of Chicago. He experimented with the reproductive systems and cells of marine animals in the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. His research and papers on Marine biology were so well received that in 1915, at age 32, Just was awarded the first Spingarn Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Over the next 20 years, Just would perform studies on marine animals and their eggs as well as on their cell structures. He believed that in learning about healthy cells and cell structures, man could hope to understand and find cures for cellular irregularities and diseases such as sickle cell anemia and cancer. He also researched parthenogenesis (developing marine eggs without fertilization). He quickly became one of the most respected scientists in his field, but much of that recognition came from abroad as racial bigotry in the United States caused much of his work and his achievements to go unrewarded.
In other countries, he was treated as a a pioneer, recruited to work with Russian scientists and invited to be a guest worker at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biology, at the time the world’s greatest scientific research laboratory. He was also welcomed with open arms at the Naples Zoological Station in Italy and the Sorbonne in France, where he conducted research and shared his ideas.
Ernest Just died on October 27, 1941 of cancer, leaving behind a wife, Ethel, and three children. He also left behind a world which would eventually recognize him as the most outstanding zoologist of his time.
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