Ernest Everett Just

Posted on September 3rd, 2013 by

Ernest Everett Just was a great scientist, but his story is equally interesting today for what it reveals about the unique pressures faced by one of the earliest African Americans biologists in a field that was not very open to him. In 1983, Kenneth R. Manning published an excellent biography of Just called Black Apollo of Science, which ably brings out the tensions produced by Just’s excellence in his field in spite of the difficulties he faced.

Ernest Everett Just, date unknown
Photo credit: The Marine Biological Laboratory Archives

For us, the most interesting facet about Just’s story as Manning tells it is his special relationship with Julius Rosenwald and the Rosenwald Fund. In the late 1910s, Just was a well-liked instructor at Howard University, but he wanted more time to pursue independent research. It was with this in mind that he met with Julius Rosenwald in early 1920. Just’s work had attracted several ‘mentors’, one of which was Abraham Flexner of the Rockefeller Foundation. Because the Rockefeller Foundation wasn’t able to support Just, Flexner set up a meeting with Julius Rosenwald. It was unusual for the Rosenwald Fund to give a grant to an already established researcher; for example, Dr. Charles Drew received his Rosenwald grant while still in medical school at McGill. However, Flexner eloquently argued on Just’s behalf that “service would be rendered to humanity through giving a fitting opportunity and support to a really able scientist of the Negro race.” Rosenwald agreed, electing to give Just an independent research grant of $1,500 a year (to which he added $500/year to support Just’s summer research at Woods Hole, Massachusetts).

Just relaxing at Woods Hole
Photo credit: The Marine Biological Laboratory Archives

The only problem with this arrangement was that Howard’s administration didn’t want Just to give up his full time teaching position, which didn’t pay well. They didn’t see his research as increasing his value to the university. But once again Flexner came to his aid. Howard University agreed to let Just cut back his course load to allow time for research in exchange for Flexner securing a large donation for the university through the Rockefeller Foundation.

Although Flexner was a strong supporter of Ernest Just, Manning describes him as holding casually racist attitudes: he was interested in alleviating the plight of African Americans but his support was marked by paternalism and he was shortsighted about the possibility for African American achievement in the sciences. Rosenwald’s work has been criticized on these grounds as well, and an example from Manning’s book paints him this way. When deliberating over whether to extend a permanent endowment to Just’s work, Rosenwald asked Just and his mentor Ralph Lillie whether Just’s attitude towards other blacks was one of “helpful association or aloofness.” This extra hurdle is not one that he or other philanthropists would have felt necessary to require with white grant beneficiaries, who would have been judged on the merits of their work.

Abraham Flexner
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, Just seems to have had a special affection for Rosenwald. Just’s bond with Rosenwald was best demonstrated by his request to list his official title as “Julius Rosenwald Fellow in Biology.” This was an unusual request, Manning notes, as Rosenwald rarely allowed his name to be used in connection with his philanthropic work. The request was granted. Manning also writes that Just often sent letters to Rosenwald with personal details about his life and upbringing and the professional problems he faced getting hired because of race. Just consistently shared his successes (being asked to speak at national and international conferences, being cited in major publications, his own work on fertilization being lauded) with Rosenwald and this strategy of personal appeals lead to Rosenwald renewing the grant several times, to 7 years in total. In his letter to Rosenwald at the end of the 7-year grant period, Just described their relationship as “an almost holy alliance–a thing of spirit which I shall always remember” (qtd. in Manning, 155).

Julius Rosenwald in 1917
Photo credit: Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress

In fact, Rosenwald’s support wasn’t over. He soon came back and supported Just with a more modest 3 year grant, which Just used to support the work of his student, Roger Arliner Young (a notable marine biologist in her own right). Later, Just appealed to Edwin Embree, who ran the Rosenwald Fund after Julius Rosenwald’s death, for support for Howard’s biology department. Just successfully convinced Embree, who was typically against endowments, to make a large donation to the department. Embree followed through even when planned-upon support from the General Education Board was not forthcoming.

Manning describes Just as driven and often overworked, which eventually took a toll on him. Whether his benefactors (like Flexner, Rosenwald and Embree) intended to be overbearing in the administration of their support or not, Just felt pressure to excel because of the trust placed in him. Not only did he have to produce quality research (as his Rosenwald grants were administered by the National Research Council) he felt he constantly had to promote his work in order to maintain the fellowships he needed to stay afloat. Just’s career as a biologist was marked by this tension – trying to do great research while pleasing his benefactors and providing much needed instruction for his students at Howard.

By Michael Rose