(1883-1941)

MBL Affiliation from 1909 to 1941 as Investigator and Corporation Member

Ernest Everett Just
Ernest Everett Just in 1921. Credit: MBL Archives

Ernest Everett Just’s arrival at MBL in 1909 was both quiet and momentous. He came as a summer research assistant, like many other young scientists. But unlike others, Just was the first African American to study and work at the Marine Biological Laboratory.

Working with MBL Director Frank R. Lillie, Just dove into courses and lab work with zeal. Focusing on embryology and questions of fertilization, Just examined the egg cells of sea urchins (Arbacia) and marine worms (Nereis) and the problems of cell cleavage, which led to his first publication in 1912. Widely cited, Just’s article demonstrated that the entry point of the sperm determines the first cleavage plane. It became the authoritative and fundamental work on the cell cleavage of marine eggs.

Subsequently, Just was promoted to MBL investigator, continuing his work on egg cells. He often harvested his own specimens aboard the MBL’s vessel, the Cayadetta, and became a a sought-after expert in the handling and care of marine invertebrates and their eggs.

Ernest Everett Just with microscope. Credit MBL Archives
Ernest Everett Just with microscope. Credit MBL Archives

Already a professor at Howard University, Just was appointed head of its new Zoology Department. He took a leave of absence to enroll in a Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago. Amid racial and class unrest, Just finished his coursework and his dissertation on the breeding habits of Nereis limbata and Platynereis megalops, and the fertilization reaction of the sand dollar, Echinarachnius parma.

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.

— Ernest Everett Just

Recognizing him as a trailblazing scientist, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) awarded Just the first-ever NAACP Spingarn Medal in 1915, making him a role model to many burgeoning Black students.

Graduating from University of Chicago in 1916 with a Ph.D. in Zoology and Physiology, Just returned to the MBL as a research scientist. He worked tirelessly on his research, though he was deeply troubled by the World War. Just’s work thereafter focused on the structural changes and the fertilization reaction of the egg cell surface during the fertilization process.

E.E. Just, far right, Thomas Hunt Morgan, far left, and members of Morgan’s lab at the MBL in 1919. Morgan, who became a Nobel Prize laureate in 1933, called this photo, “Solving the Problems of the Universe.” Credit: MBL Archives
E.E. Just, far right, Thomas Hunt Morgan, far left, and members of Morgan’s lab at the MBL in 1919. Morgan, who became a Nobel Prize laureate in 1933, called this photo, “Solving the Problems of the Universe.” Credit: MBL Archives

Though Just had become an internationally respected scientist, he was unable to find a position at any major institution, because he was Black. Instead, Just sought additional research opportunities abroad. First traveling to the Stazione Zoologica in Italy, then at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Berlin, the Sorbonne in Paris, and the Station Biologique in Roscoff, France, Just broadened his scope, becoming more philosophical as he wove his scientific findings and his ideas of life together.

After Just’s experiences abroad, where he felt free to research and live in a way he could not in the segregated United States, Just publicly criticized the attitudes and restrictions he’d experienced at the MBL, resolving to remain to Europe.

Just playing horseshoes in Woods Hole. Credit: A.F. Huettner
Just playing horseshoes in Woods Hole. Credit: A.F. Huettner

During the 20 plus summers Just had spent at MBL, he’d become known as “a genius in the design of experiments.” He published many of his widely respected methods for handling eggs and embryos in the MBL journal, The Biological Bulletin, and eventually brought them together in a book. His most notable contributions included his work on the fertilization reaction and on Lillie’s “fertlizin” theory of fertilization; experimental parthenogenesis; marine invertebrate reproduction; and the egg cell reactions that prevent more than one sperm from entering (fast and slow blocks to polyspermy).

Just published more than 70 scientific articles, became the editor of the journal Physiological Zoology in 1929, was elected to the editorial board of the MBL’s Biological Bulletin in 1930, and elected vice president of the American Society of Zoologists in 1930. His 1939 book, The Biology of the Cell Surface, synthesized his discoveries into a whole, making scientific concepts accessible to general readers, and influencing scientists around the world.

— By Mélina Mangal

Selected Sources

Byrnes, W. Malcolm and Stuart A. Newman (2014) Ernest Everett Just: Egg and Embryo as Excitable SystemsJ Exp Zool B Mol Dev Evol., DOI: 10.1002/jez.b.22567

Byrnes, W Malcolm (2009). Ernest Everett Just, Johannes Holtfreter, and the Origin of Certain Concepts in Embryo Morphogenesis. Molecular Reproduction and Development, DOI:10.1002/mrd.21081

Jaffe, Laurinda (2018) The fast block to polyspermy: New insight into a century-old problem. J. General Physiology, DOI: 10.1085/jgp.201812145

Just, Ernest Everett. The Biology of the Cell Surface. Philadelphia: Blakiston’s, 1939. “We feel the beauty…”’ quote is on p. 369. Full text is available online through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, DOI: 10.5962/bhl.title.6379

Just, Ernest Everett. Basic Methods for Experiments on Eggs of Marine Animals. P. Blakiston’s Son and Co; Philadelphia: 1939. Full text is available online through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, DOI: 10.5962/bhl.title.5997

Manning, Kenneth R. Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.


A gift in E.E. Just’s honor will support the E.E. Just Endowed Research Fellowship Fund, supporting underrepresented scientists pursuing research at the MBL.

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