Dr. Ernest E. Just

(1883 - 1941)

Quick Facts (from Wikipedia)

  • Ernest E. Just was born in Charleston, South Carolina
  • Graduated from the Industrial School of the State College, Orangeburg, South Carolina
  • Kimball Union Academy, Meriden, New Hampshire
  • Bachelor of Arts Degree, Dartmouth College (Phi Beta Kappa)
  • Awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP, 1915
  • Doctor of Philosophy Degree, University of Chicago, 1916
  • Became the 19th honoree in the U.S. Postal Service’s Black Heritage Stamp Series on February 1, 1996

Early life

Just was born in South Carolina to Charles Frazier Just Jr. and Mary Matthews Just on 14 August 1883. His father and grandfather, Charles Sr., were dock builders. When Ernest was four years old, both his father and grandfather died. Just’s mother became the sole supporter of him, his younger brother, and his younger sister. Mary Matthews Just taught at an African American school in Charleston to support her family. During the summer, she worked in the phosphate mines on James Island. Noticing that there was much vacant land near the island, Mary persuaded several black families to move there to farm. The town they founded, now incorporated in the West Ashley area of Charleston, was eventually named Maryville in her honor.

Hoping Just would become a teacher, his mother sent him to an all-black boarding school in Orangeburg, South Carolina at the age of thirteen. Believing that schools for blacks in the south were inferior, Just and his mother thought it better for him to go north. At the age of sixteen, Just enrolled at a Meriden, New Hampshire college-preparatory high school, Kimball Union Academy. Tragedy struck during Just’s second year at Kimball when his mother died. Despite this hardship, Just completed the four-year program in only three years, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated in 1903 with the highest grades in his class.

Just went on to graduate magna cum laude from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Just won special honors in zoology, and distinguished himself in botany, history, and sociology as well. He was also honored as a Rufus Choate scholar for two years.

Founding of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity

On November 17, 1911, Ernest assisted three Howard students (Edgar Amos Love, Oscar James Cooper, and Frank Coleman), in establishing Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.


When he graduated from Dartmouth, Just faced the same problems as all black college graduates of his time: no matter how brilliant they were or how high were their grades, it was almost impossible for blacks to become faculty members of white colleges or universities. Just then took what seemed to be the best choices available to him and was appointed to a teaching position at historically-black Howard University in Washington, D.C.. In 1910, he was put in charge of the newly-formed biology department by Wilbur P. Thirkield. In 1912, he became head of the Department of Zoology, a position he held until his death in 1941. Just was soon introduced to Dr. Frank R. Lillie, head of the biology department at the University of Chicago. Lillie, who was also chief of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, invited Just to spend the summer of 1909 as his research assistant at the MBL. For the next 20 years, Just spent every summer but one at MBL. On June12, 1912 Ernest married Ethel Highwarden, who taught German at Howard University. They had three children: Margaret, Highwarden, and Maribel.

In 1915, Just took a leave of absence from Howard to enroll in an advanced academic program at the University of Chicago. That same year, Just, who was gaining a national reputation as an outstanding young scientist, was the first recipient of the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal on February 12, 1915. In June 1916, Just received his Ph.D. in experimental embryology, with a thesis on the mechanics of fertilization, from the University of Chicago, becoming one of the handful of blacks who had gained this degree from a major university.

Just, however, became frustrated because he could not attain an appointment to a major American university. He wanted a position that would provide a steady income and allow him to spend more time with his beloved research. The same year, he conducted experiments at the zoological station in Naples, Italy. Then, in 1930, he became the first American to be invited to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, Germany, where several Nobel Prize winners conducted research.

Beginning in 1933, Just ceased his work in Germany when the Nazis began to take the control of the country. He relocated his European-based studies to Paris.

Just authored two books, Basic Methods for Experiments on Eggs of Marine Mammals (1922) and The Biology of the Cell Surface (1939), and he also published several scientific papers relating to cell cytoplasm.


At the outbreak of World War II, Just was working at the “Station Biologique” in Roscoff, France, researching the paper that would become Unsolved Problems of General Biology. Although the French government requested foreigners to evacuate the country, Just remained to complete his work. In 1940, Germany invaded France and Just was briefly imprisoned in a prisoner -of-war camp.[4] He was rescued by the U.S. State Department and returned to his home country in September 1940.

However, Just had been very ill for months prior to his arrest and his condition deteriorated in prison and on the journey back to the U.S. In the fall of 1941, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and died shortly thereafter.


Just was the subject of the 1983 biography Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just by Kenneth R. Manning. The book received the 1983 Pfizer Award and was a finalist for the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

In 1996, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring Just.

Beginning in 2000, the Medical University of South Carolina has hosted the annual Ernest E. Just Symposium to encourage non-white students to pursue careers in biomedical sciences and health professions.

In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante included Just on his list of the 100 Greatest African Americans.


  • Vice-President, American Zoological Society
  • Recipient of the first Spingarn Medal (1915) for his research in Biology
  • National Research Rosenwald fellow in Biology (1920-1931)
  • Ecological Society
  • Phi Beta Kappa
  • Omega Psi Phi, Founder and faculty advisor, Howard University (November 17, 1911)
  • Editor, Protoplasm — an international journal published in Berlin
  • devoted to the work done on the physical chemistry of the cell — Collaborator of Cytologia — published in Japan
  • Editor, Physiological Zoology
  • Editor, Biological Zoology — official organ of the Marine Biological Advancement of Science

Selected Publications

  • Basic Methods for Experiments in Eggs of Marine Animals
  • Ernest E. Just. (Philadelphia, PA: P. Blaikston’s Son & Co.), 1939, 89 pages