Howard University Graduate School

HUGS Research Magazine
and Graduate School Research Archive

ARTICLE Issue 002

The Genius of Ernest Everett Just

By W. Malcolm Byrnes, PhD

Dr. Malcolm Byrnes

Dr. Malcolm Byrnes is an associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the College of Medicine.

"Just has qualities of genius; nothing whatever turns him aside from his purpose.” Frank R. Lillie, Just’s mentor at Woods Hole, in a 1939 letter to National Research Council President Ross Harrison (Lillie quoted in Manning, K. (1983) Black Apollo of Science. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 319).

Ernest Everett Just

E. E. Just, circa 1925. Courtesy of the Marine Biological Laboratory Archives.

Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941) was a pioneering African-American embryologist who is best known for his discovery of the fast block to polyspermy, his elucidation of the slow block, and his discovery that the adhesive properties of the cells of the cleavage embryo depend on the particular developmental stage that they are in.

Born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1883, Just left the state as a teenager to attend Kimball Union Academy, a boarding school in Meriden, New Hampshire, and then Dartmouth College in nearby Hanover, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1907. That same year, he accepted a faculty position at Howard University. His appointment was at first in English, but in 1910, at the request of President Thirkfield, he moved to the Biology Department.

Just quickly rose through the academic ranks, becoming both Professor of Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Physiology in the College of Medicine in 1912. With funding from the Rosenwald Fund, he established a graduate program in Zoology at Howard, and served as the Department of Zoology’s first chair. In 1916, he received a Ph.D. in Zoology from the University of Chicago.

Soon after his arrival at Howard, Just began to look for opportunities to do scientific research. Through the help of William Patten, a Dartmouth professor with whom he had done independent research as an undergraduate student, Just was able secure a position as an apprentice under embryologist Frank R. Lillie, who was both the director of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole, Mass., and the Chair of the Department of Zoology at the University of Chicago. Over the course of the next twenty or so years, Just would spend the better part of each summer at Woods Hole.

While at Woods Hole, Just rose from student apprentice to international expert. His particular area of expertise was in the fertilization and early development of marine invertebrates such as the sea urchin, the sand dollar, and various species of marine annelid. Through careful study of the animals in their natural settings, and by applying the knowledge he had acquired to the laboratory setting, he was able to gain unique insight into the inner workings of the animals’ developmental processes.

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