Author: Ibon Cancio, UPV/EHU Associated Professor in Cell Biology; researcher in the ‘Cell Biology & Environmental Toxicology’ (CBET) research group of the Plentzia Marine Station (PiE-UPV/EHU); Spanish scientific representative in the EMBRC Committee of Nodes
Ernest Everett Just was born close to Charleston (South Carolina) in 1883 and in his biography, he would be later nicknamed the ‘Black Apollo of Science’. He won the Spingarn Medal that the NCAAP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) awards annually for the highest achievement of an American of African descent, in its first edition of 1915. He was an outstanding marine biologist that made ample use of the ‘Transnational Access’ possibilities that marine biological stations, and academic institutions in general, offered in Europe to meritorious researchers.
Just became one of the very first African Americans to obtain a PhD in science (from the University of Chicago, 1916). His PhD supervisor was the great Frank R. Lillie, director of Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole. Just would obtain a position as Professor at Howard University, a federally chartered black university in Washington D.C., leaving him with a significant teaching load and little time for research during the academic year. Instead, he visited MBL every summer to conduct his research – something he did for over 15 years after his graduation. There, he mainly investigated different aspects of fertilisation with polychaetes, sea urchins, sea stars and other model marine invertebrates. These summer research retreats resulted in solid, technically magnificent, science on cell biology and most especially on the cell surface function. In experiments carried out mainly on the sand dollars Echinarachnius parma Just described one of the main processes commanding fertilisation: the block of polyspermy. Only one sperm can fertilise an oocyte. We explain to our biology students in universities nowadays the fast and the slow blocks of polyspermy thanks to him.
Despite his achievements, Just earned little recognition from the scientific community.
After some promising beginnings, he felt under constant funding constraints, in part due to the colour of his skin and the little eminence of the institution where he was circumscribed to carry out his teaching duties. Possibilities to promote himself and his research to other more eminent academic institutions were always hampered. He was treated paternalistically by his mentors and considered as a mere technician by most MBL scientists. In fact, he mastered laboratory technique and methodology. Just could not understand scientists that were so careful with their experimental set-ups, but did not pay attention to the biological models on which their experiments were centred. Marine biology with marine biological resources has to be carried out close to the field, and in conditions close to those of the resources’ environment. In that, he clashed with the man who was considered one of the most famous scientists in America (and Just’s early ally), Jacques Loeb, who treated organisms as machines. They both were the leading researchers in the investigation of parthenogenesis (immaculate conception) in marine invertebrates.
After obtaining a Rosenwald foundation fellowship, Just initiated a first trip to Europe in January 1929, for a research stay of 6 months in Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn, Naples (SZN), to work with Nereis dumerilii (a marine polychaete). He discovered an open collaborative scientific environment in the institution that has been considered the Mecca of marine science, and developed a deep friendship with its director starting in 1909, Reinhard Dohrn. The social environment, fraternity and freedom to conduct research he experienced convinced him of the need to conduct research in Europe. He made every effort to travel yearly to Europe after covering his semester teaching duties in Howard. He returned yearly to Naples until 1938, with a long parenthesis in 1930 dedicated to a sabbatical in Germany (Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft, Berlin) where he has treated as an eminent scientist. Finally, he committed to leave the USA indefinitively.
In spring 1938, he moved to France, finding his place without a salary at Sorbonne University. During 1939, and with the inspiration found, he published a book. He had previously published ‘Basic Methods for Experiments on Eggs of Marine Animals’ (1922) on the utilisation of eggs of marine model organisms in the research of fertilisation. This second book was a more philosophical scientific treatise on the ‘Biology of the Cell Surface’, typical of a scientist in his plenitude with a strong experimental background on his shoulders. A masterpiece!!
In these late two years, very short of funds, his research was centred at Station Biologique de Roscoff (Brittany), an institution founded like SZN in 1872. With the invasion of Germany in 1940, France had recommended foreigners to leave the country, but Just decided to stay to complete his work at Roscoff. He was made prisoner in a camp for a short period of time, and when he was rescued with the help of the family of his German wife (Maid Hedwig) in September 1940 there was no other option than to return to the USA. He died of pancreatic cancer shortly after, in October 27 1941, at the age of 58.
A great embryologist and cell biologist that loved European marine biological stations, he obtained the full recognition he deserved in life after his death, very recently made an icon for children in the lovely illustrated book the ‘Vast Wonder of the World’, dedicated to the explorer of the vast beauty of the oceans.
Image at the top of this page: E. E. Just at Woods Hole MBL in 1920, from an album created by A. H. Sturtevant archived in Caltech archives. Permission to publish granted to Ibon Cancio by Caltech archives.