Bittinger: Ernest Everett Just

Feb 25, 2015

Ernest Everett Just rose through the academic ranks like a meteor, a path of brilliance in his wake, but his roots were grounded in the vestiges of the Jim Crow South and his opportunities, even in the North, were limited. But he reached for an education and found it in the Upper Valley.

Just was born in 1883 in Charleston, South Carolina to a very poor family with a grandfather who'd been a slave. He was initially educated by his mother, but when he needed greater academic challenge, she arranged for him to work his way to New York City by ship, take the train to Windsor Vermont, and a horse drawn carriage to Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, NH. He carried with him two pairs of shoes and a five dollar bill.

Just was the only African American at Kimball Union but he joined the debating society and became editor of the school newspaper. When he finished in three years, his teachers encouraged him to apply to Dartmouth. He achieved high marks in Greek, but that failed to impress other students, since most African Americans there excelled in sports.

He was the only person in his class of 1907 to graduate magna cum laude - but he wasn’t invited to speak at graduation and being a black Dartmouth college graduate didn’t grant him entry into the white professional world.

With assistance from a Dartmouth professor, Just earned his PHD at the University of Chicago, but due to racial barriers, he couldn’t teach at a research-intensive university. Instead, he worked at Woods Hole, and also in Europe on a fellowship from the National Research Council.

He authored more than 70 papers and two books, both published in 1939. Today, he’s credited with proving that cortical cytoplasm, the outer part of a cell, is more vital to the life process than previously thought.

Just was conducting research in Europe when the Germans seized Paris in 1940 and he was thrown into a French prison camp. He gained release through a German friend, but on returning to America, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and soon died at the age of 57. One of his last acts was to partly repay his scholarships at KUA and Dartmouth.

Ernest Everett Just wanted to be a model for his race and his passion for science was overarching. Today at Dartmouth, a professorship and a program with the mission to increase the number of minorities majoring in the sciences are named in his honor.