A Charleston-Born Scientist You Should Know About
From 1883 to 1941, Ernest Everett Just lived through an extraordinary period in American history and science. His own life was no less exceptional.
Though little-known today, Just was a pioneering biologist who used sea urchins, worms, and sand dollars to study the development of embryos. At a young age, he became the eldest surviving member of his family. As a scientist, he challenged theories of the most renowned minds of the day – and in some cases successfully proved them wrong. He published more than 70 scientific papers over a three-decade career, dying a year after his release from a World War II prisoner-of-war camp.
He did all of this as a black man in an era hostile to the very idea of his success.
Though born at an auspicious time – the 100-year anniversary of the incorporation of Charleston, South Carolina – Ernest Everett Just’s early life was marked by tragedy.
Just after Ernest’s birth, outbreaks of both cholera and diphtheria ravaged Charleston, hitting the medically underserved black community with particular severity. Ernest’s elder brother and sister both died as a result of the epidemics.
In the 1880s, the Just family attended Emmanuel AME church and lived on Inspection Street, near the wharfs where Ernest’s grandfather, a former slave, made his living as a skilled wharf-builder. Charles Just Sr. was one of the most prominent members of the local black community, and his death – just a month after Ernest’s own father’s death by alcoholism – was a terrible blow to the family, emotionally and financially.
Mary, Ernest’s mother, soon moved the family to James Island. There she took up work in the nascent phosphate mining industry and became a leader in the Gullah-Geechee community, founding the area’s first school and church. There is evidence to suggest the township Maryville, located in present-day West Ashley, was named in her honor. Strongminded and strict, she stressed the values of education and cleanliness in Ernest.
Ernest later recalled his time on the island with a nostalgia and love of the natural world that remains familiar to many who grow up in the Lowcountry, even a hundred years later.
Ernest Everett Just never returned to the Carolina coastal plains after his mother died, but he retained a keen interest in natural history that would deeply inform his scientific work.
Just obtained his undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College and later his PhD from the University of Chicago. But in academia, Just continually came up against the punishing boundaries of being a black man – even an exceptionally well educated one – in the United States. The color of his skin profoundly limited his social and scientific aims, making it impossible to secure a position at a predominantly white school, for example, or even attend events where his only dance partners would be white.
Just became a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and grew its new department of zoology. He spent summers working at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, studying mating behavior and egg fertilization in marine worms, sand dollars, and sea urchins. As time went on, however, he increasingly looked to Europe, where the scientific community welcomed him without prejudice. By the end of his life, he was living in a kind of self-imposed exile in France. Following Nazi occupation in 1939, however, he was first imprisoned and then returned to the United States. Within a year, he died of pancreatic cancer.
Just’s Legacy Today
After his death, Ernest Everett Just nearly disappeared from the records. Other researchers continued to build upon his contributions to embryology, but rarely was he referenced after the end of World War II.
The publication in 1983 of an excellent biography by MIT historian of science Kenneth Manning brought his unusual life and scientific contributions back into public consciousness. The U.S. Postal Service honored Just in 1996 with a stamp bearing his image. Now, each February, the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston hosts the Ernest Just Symposium, an event dedicated to celebrating the scientist’s legacy and providing guidance to students interested in graduate studies at the University.
Here at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, marine biologists over the years have benefitted from the contributions of natural historians like Ernest Everett Just to our understanding of animals such as sand dollars and marine worms.
If you’re interested in learning more about this pioneering scientist, I highly recommend Kenneth Manning’s Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just.
For more information about Just’s scientific contributions, this article is another great resource.
And lastly, many thanks to SCDNR’s Bea Calhoun for the tip to read up on Ernest Everett Just in the first place.