Black History Month Feature:
MBL Scientist E. E. Just
Dr. E.E. Just, an African American cell biologist, spent 20 summers at the MBL studying and working with his mentor, Frank R. Lillie. In his research, he used marine invertebrates ranging from the marine worm (Nereis) to sand dollars, according to the MBL History Project, for experiments to show that the egg surface plays an important role in the fertilization and development of eggs. He did his best to keep his laboratory experiments close to the creatures’ actual marine environments

He published two books in 1939, “Basic Methods forExperiments in Eggs of Marine Animals” and “The Biology of the CellSurface.” He was on the editorial board of the MBL’s Biological Bulletin and was editor of another MBL journal, Physiological Zoology. 
Ernest Everett Just was born in 1883 in Charleston, South Carolina. By the age of 4, his two siblings had died of cholera and diphtheria, and he then contracted typhoid fever. He had learned to read and write at a young age but after typhoid fever, his memory was so badly affected that he was unable to read or write. He persevered and re-taught himself.   

His family was in poverty after the deaths of his father and grandfather. His mother moved them from Charleston to nearby James Island, where she worked hard in the phosphate mines and later established a town named for her, Maryville. She taught school and founded an industrial school for young Black students. Ernest went to the Colored Normal, Industrial, Agricultural and Mechanical College (now South Carolina State University) but his mother heard of Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire and urged him to go there.  

He did well at Kimball Union and was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. He then attended Dartmouth College, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 1907 with a major in biology. He joined the faculty at Howard University to teach English but was later asked to take over the biology department and teach physiology in 1910, and became the first head of the zoology department. 
Through a Dartmouth contact, Just contacted F.R.Lillie at the University of Chicago about a post-graduate degree in biology. Lillie brought Just to the MBL in 1909 where he took the marine invertebrates and embryology courses, then worked with Lillie as his research assistant. He also began to take courses at the University of Chicago. All of this was done in addition to maintaining a full-time teaching position at Howard. After obtaining his PhD, Just returned annually to Woods Hole until 1929 as an independent researcher. 

MIT Professor Kenneth Manning, whose biography of Just, “Black Apollo of Science,” was published in 1983, wrote “Lillie brought Just to Woods Hole as his Research Assistant…The story of how this young aspiring black lived in the Woods Hole community, how he gained a foothold in the field of biology, and how he finally came to reject Woods Hole for other similar communities in Europe is one of the most fascinating turns of events in the social history of American science.” 

The late H. Burr Steinbach, who was MBL director from 1966-69 and as a graduate student knew Just, was interviewed in 1977 by Manning. “In my rather brief acquaintance with him, I would characterize him as one of the more brilliant scientists who was completely frustrated in this country by the fact that he was Black,” Steinbach said. 

“Just was vulnerable to racial prejudice at Woods Hole, as much as he would have been in any other community at the time,” Manning wrote. There was a dance in Woods Hole that he was asked not to attend by a scientist’s wife who had planned the event because it would be an “embarrassment” to have him there, according to Manning, and at the MBL Mess Hall, other families refused to sit with his family.  

“Still, Woods Hole was the only place where Just could maintain a foothold in the professional world of biology,” Manning said.  
"Bailing fish from trap"
Gideon S. Dodds and E.E. Just in smaller boat
In 1929, Just traveled to Naples, Italy to do research at Anton Dohrn’s Stazione Zoologica. Manning wrote that Just “intended to return in six months to “his mentor Lillie and his ‘Mecca, Woods Hole.’ ” But he continued to go back to Europe, where he had more professional opportunities than in the US, conducting research in Naples and also the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. He remained on the faculty of Howard University until 1940. 

The Falmouth Enterprise in July 1930 reported that a celebration to honor Frank Lillie’s 40 years at MBL and 60th birthday brought renowned scientists to Woods Hole for the occasion, including “Dr. E.E. Just of Howard University who came back from Europe for the occasion.”  

He left the US in 1938 to move permanently to Naples, returning when World War II broke out. Just died soon afterward of cancer. 

In Just’s obituary published in the journal, Science, in 1942, Lillie wrote “In the 20 summer sessions that Just spent at the MBL at Woods Hole he became more widely acquainted with the embryological resources of the marine fauna than probably any other person, and he learned to handle the material with skill and understanding.” 
For more information on Just: “Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just,” by Kenneth R. Manning; and the children’s book, “The Vast Wonder of the World - Biologist Ernest Everett Just,” by Melina Mangal.  

Thanks to the MBL and Jen Walton at the MBLWHOI Library for the photos and information.

Learn more about Black History Month events in Woods Hole this month here.

This summer the museum is also featuring a display on the late Dr. Jewel Plummer Cobb, African American MBL scientist and trustee. 
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Woods Hole Historical Museum
579 Woods Hole Road (P.O. Box 185)
Woods Hole, MA 02543
Phone: 508-548-7270