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Thwarted Genius

Like so many other American biologists, I have spent several summers working at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole; and my affection for the place runs deep. During my first summer there, I would often wander about very late at night (or early in the morning, since the library is open twenty-four hours a day, and the joy of research easily fuses night with coming day). I would study the numerous plaques, medals, and photographs hanging here and there, dedicated to the great scientists who had worked at Woods Hole. One particularly caught my attention, a photo hanging in the main reading room, labeled Ernest Everett Just. The man it depicted was singularly handsome, with a pervasive look of sadness that touched me across half a century. It differed from all others in a way that shouldn’t matter but always has in America—E.E. Just was black. I became fascinated with the man, read all I could by and about him, realized how interesting and ambiguous a story his life and work had been, and have wondered ever since why nobody had written his biography.

I am now delighted to report that MIT historian of science Kenneth R. Manning has published a detailed biography of Just, and that it is among the finest biographies I have ever read. Manning’s book wins my highest praise for two reasons. First, it is so well written and meticulously researched that despite its fastidious attention to detail it is a pleasure to read. Second, the subject is so fascinating in itself that any competent writer or scholar would begin with a significant leg up.

Manning has chosen to write an institutional history of science. He has relatively little to say about Just’s biological research and less about the biological theories of his time. He concentrates instead on Just’s relationship to institutions: Howard University where he taught, the laboratories in Woods Hole and Europe where he worked, and especially the foundations where he relentlessly pursued funding for research. Since mavericks and unusual situations best reveal the normal character of institutions, Just’s story, fascinating in itself as human drama, incisively reveals the practice of science, and the structure of its financing, in early twentieth-century America. It also serves as a guide to the racial attitudes of American scientists, a group who considered themselves (and may even have been) among the most enlightened in prejudiced America.

E.E. Just was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1883. His grandfather, a freed slave probably fathered by his former owner, was a skilled wharf builder and a leader of Charleston’s black community. His father was an alcoholic who died young, and Just was raised by his mother, a strong and determined woman with unswerving religious and educational commitments. In an unusual move, Just was sent north for schooling, first to Kimball Union Academy in Vermont, thence to Dartmouth, where he began as a student of English and classics, switched to biology, and graduated as the only magnacum laude of 1907 (there were no summas that year).

Today, such a promising black scholar would be wooed assiduously by every major university in America. For Just, as Manning notes, possibilities were much more restricted: “An educated black had two options, both limited: he could either teach or preach—and only among blacks.” So Just went to Howard and stayed there all his life, with zero institutional mobility, despite superb research and copious publication. Howard, with no graduate program and crushing responsibilities in teaching and administration, was singularly unsuited for the pure research in experimental embryology that Just wished to pursue. Just therefore contacted Frank R. Lillie, head of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, and he obtained a summer’s assistantship there in 1909. The two men immediately sensed their mutual affinity. Both were quiet and conservative in temperament, sticklers for absolute cleanliness and careful procedure in the laboratory, and committed to a nonreductionist approach to embryological problems. Just spent two decades of summers working for Lillie at Woods Hole, and wrote most of his eighty scientific papers and two books there.

But the racism that usually lay under the surface (but flared up explicitly the one summer that Just tried to bring his wife and children along, only to find them ignored by everyone) and, above all, the crushing paternalism that emerged from even the friendliest quarters, from Lillie almost above all, eventually drove this proud man to anger and distraction. He had beat the bushes of funding for years, with a good deal of success, considering the obvious obstacles (he had even managed to find some support during the Depression when many white Ph.D.’s were on the bread lines). So he was able to travel to Europe and pursue research in German laboratories and French and Italian marine stations. Here a new world opened up. Finally, in mid-life, he was accepted simply for the quality of his work and encouraged without impediment. Just angrily rejected America and embraced an entirely new life in Europe.

He became so attached to his romanticized view of European culture that he either misunderstood or almost chose to ignore the encroaching reality of fascism. He was at work at a marine station when the Nazis took France in 1940. Bitter and confused, Just came back—where else?—to Howard, where he died of pancreatic cancer only a year later, in October 1941.

Just’s biological work lay firmly in the great classical tradition of experimental embryology that made Woods Hole a center of American biology early in the century. If, in his early work, he rarely stepped outside the theoretical purview of his mentor, Lillie, his experiments were noted for their care and meticulousness of design. His empirical work focused on problems of fertilization, where he made several notable contributions. (In his very first paper, for example, he showed that, at least in some important marine invertebrates, the plane of first cleavage corresponds to the point of entry of the sperm. Since he could also demonstrate that the egg’s surface was “equipotential”—for the sperm had no favored domain of entry—the plane of cleavage must be determined exogenously by the point of fertilization, not by any prearrangement of material within the egg. This may not strike most readers, even biologically sophisticated ones, as a hot issue today, but it represented the major debate within embryological circles at the time—a reincarnation of the oldest issue in biology, epigenesis versus preformation.)

As his work on fertilization progressed, Just became convinced that the cell surface, through which fertilization must proceed, was no mere passive boundary, but an active determinant of essential cellular processes, endowed with far greater complexity of design and chemistry than is usually attributed to it. This led him to a holistic view of biological organization, a powerful and sensible midway position between the outright vitalism of some traditional European biologists (who believed in a “special spark” inherent in life alone and were more than just vaguely mystical) and the mechanistic reductionism of some zealous “modernists” (who believed that biology was nothing but physics and chemistry, explainable in terms of basic constituents, and requiring no concept of higher levels of organization).* Just’s work, particularly after his European exile, thus took on a more philosophical tone, culminating in his book of 1939 with its deceptively pedestrian title, The Biology of the Cell Surface.

This short account of Just’s research should suggest the special challenge that he posed even (or especially) to whites who considered themselves enlightened in their racial views. As Manning notes so well, biological liberals of the time were quite prepared to accept black scientists who, like George Washington Carver, allied themselves with Booker T. Washington’s doctrine of slow and humble self-help and devoted their lives to practical efforts in aiding black farmers to find more uses for peanuts. From this point of view, Just was a threatening anomaly. He wanted to do theoretical research at the highest levels of abstraction and detail—and he did it well. He was a proud and cultured man who loved good wine and good clothes, white women, opera, and the classics—though, as a practical man as well, he also cultivated “humility,” even shuffling, when the situation demanded it, at least until he could stand the charade no longer. “The white public,” Manning writes, “felt more comfortable reading about a black scientist wearing dirty aprons and doing manual labor than about one dressed in elegant suits and preparing high-powered articles for serious scientific journals.”

Just’s career therefore posed a special challenge to the institutions of science and to the institutions of funding in general—the theme that Manning has chosen for his book. Just was a zealous self-promoter (how else could he have survived at all?), and his assiduous efforts brought him into contact with nearly everyone who mattered in American biology and philanthropy. His personal story therefore becomes a stage for portraying major social forces and important personages. (Manning chooses to treat these themes sequentially rather than chronologically, cycling through the same years in several adjacent chapters devoted to, for example, research, universities, funding, and family life. Since a biography written by one man must lack the fascination of different perspectives on the same tale as offered by Rashomon, this organization can sometimes become confusing or repetitive—my only other general criticism of the best book I have read this year.)

Reactions to Just were as varied as the men and institutions he approached, but they were dominated by Just’s own special tragedy and frustration: no one with power in America would take him seriously for what he desired to be and do—and, indeed, did so well. Liberal supporters consistently tried to remake him as a “model for his race,” a man who would selflessly and willingly suppress or abandon his research to render service by teaching humble and grateful blacks headed for the practical work of medicine. Manning notes the inconsistency, even the hypocrisy:

The foundations were all too ready to suspect blacks of being elitist, separationist, disloyal to their people, but no such doubts arose when it came to supporting whites. Invariably, more delicate questions were asked about blacks than about whites—and the right answers were expected, indeed demanded. The Rockefeller Foundation gave large grants to the eugenicist Raymond Pearl, but no one expected him to identify with poor whites in Appalachia. Rosenwald supported the work of the philosopher Morris Cohen, but he did not inquire about Cohen’s ethnic loyalty or suggest that he had to identify with unfortunate Jews living in East Side ghettos. [Rosenwald was Just’s major supporter as well, and he did ask continuous questions—and demand documentation—about Just’s ethnic loyalty.]

We may gain some insight in miniature into Just’s special burdens and the frustration that eventually drove him to European self-exile by considering his relationship with three key figures, all well documented by Manning: the scientists Jacques Loeb and F.R. Lillie, and that leader of medical philanthropy and reform, Abraham Flexner.

Loeb should have been, and once was, Just’s most zealous supporter. This great European biologist who emigrated to America was as firm and active in his radical politics as in his research—and Just was America’s best biological model for his egalitarian views. Just met the powerful Loeb in 1912 and secured his enthusiastic support. Calling Just “certainly a superior man,” he politicked, in his dealings with Flexner among others, for substantial financing both for Just’s research and, through Just, for Howard’s medical program. Loeb was also active in the NAACP, and was instrumental in securing for Just the unexpected award (for other blacks were far better known) of the first Spingarn Medal in 1915, still the association’s highest honor.

Yet by 1923 Loeb had turned so viciously against Just that he scotched the one reasonable chance that Just ever had to secure a major research post at a white establishment, the Rockefeller Institute (now University) in New York. Asked for his candid opinion about Just’s suitability, Loeb said that although he had once tried to “help and encourage” Just, he had now concluded “that the man is limited in intelligence, ignorant, incompetent, and conceited; in fact, his so-called research work is not only bad but a nuisance.” Loeb suggested that Just become a high school science teacher. Manning comments:

If there ever had been a chance of Just getting a position at the Rockefeller, Loeb squelched it. Such an appointment would have been a first—symbolic for the whole black race. A different letter could have changed the course of Just’s career, and no doubt would have affected the role of blacks in American science generally.

Such vagaries make history and constitute its fascination as an “iffy” science.

What had happened between 1915 and 1923? One might be tempted to charge Loeb with hypocrisy or inconsistency, but the only proper accusation is myopia. I know Loeb’s type so well; I have seen it so many times during my own career in science. Quite simply, Loeb was the great reductionist of American embryology and physiology and Just, who was developing a contrary holistic view of biological organization, had come to oppose Loeb’s biological work. He had even dared to question it with scathing and convincing counterexamples at public scientific meetings. Higher principles and general political commitments be damned; the man who dares to attack my research is anathema. I know the type so well.

Abraham Flexner, author of the famous 1910 report that changed the face of medical education in America and later first director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (where he was responsible, in large part, for bringing Einstein to America), was the guru of American medical education during all the years that Just was seeking financial support for his research and for research in biology at Howard. Flexner was ubiquitous. He seemed to head, or to dominate through simple membership, the board of directors for every philanthropy and fund that might give money to an American black biologist. His crushing paternalism toward blacks soon turned him against a man of Just’s complicated temperament, and he personally blocked support for Just on many occasions, fearing, or so he almost seemed to say, that Just’s initial successes in securing support had emboldened him to a point of nonobsequiousness inappropriate for blacks. We may be “going a little too fast,” Flexner warned; for there is “a little more danger of spoiling an exceptional colored worker than…of spoiling an exceptional white worker.”

The story of Just’s relations with F.R. Lillie is, in many ways, the saddest and most revealing of all; for if Just had any true friend among powerful whites of American science and philanthropy, that friend was surely Lillie. Lillie stood by Just throughout his life, always defending him before funding tribunals and research councils, even after the dramatic incident of Just’s final, angry departure from Woods Hole—where, on June 27, 1930, at a celebration to honor Lillie’s sixtieth birthday and his long directorship of the laboratory, Just gave a prepared speech about his research, then stepped off the podium and announced extempore, apparently still under the spell of six previous euphoric months spent in Europe after his increasing difficulties at Woods Hole: “I have received more in the way of fraternity and assistance in my one year at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut than in all my other years at Woods Hole put together.” The next day, Just left Woods Hole without saying goodbye to anyone, not even to Lillie. He never returned. Yet Lillie remained loyal, and exerted great effort to have Just repatriated after the Nazi takeover of France.

Even so, Lillie retained his paternalistic attitude and never understood, until it was too late, Just’s passion and need for research (how can any scientist, himself infected with it, as Lillie surely was and all of us worth anything are, possibly not understand?). He continually urged Just to pay more attention to teaching at Howard and less to research at Woods Hole. Lillie was the one man who could have solved all Just’s problems by creating a permanent position for him at Woods Hole as assistant director. He seriously considered this, but as a cautious and conservative man, finally decided that a black man might not be sufficiently acceptable, and that, in any case, Just would be better off “serving his people” at Howard.

Yet, by the late 1930s, when it was psychologically far too late for Just, and perhaps prompted by the dramatic event of 1930, Lillie had finally understood. In 1938, and in response to one of Just’s last attempts to obtain American funding, Lillie wrote in his support:

Just has qualities of genius; nothing whatever turns him aside from his purpose. I have attempted over and over again to get him to conform more to the conditions which his race and the nature of university life in America impose. I think now that this attempt was unwise; certainly it was futile.

And he wrote in Just’s obituary notice:

An element of tragedy ran through all Just’s scientific career due to the limitations imposed by being a Negro in America, to which he could make no lasting psychological adjustment in spite of earnest efforts on his part. The numerous grants for research did not compensate for failure to receive an appointment in one of the large universities or research institutes. He felt this as a social stigma, and hence unjust to a scientist of his recognized standing. In Europe he was received with universal kindness, and made to feel at home in every way; he did not experience social discrimination on account of his race, and this contributed greatly to his happiness there. Hence, in part at least, his prolonged self-imposed exile on many occasions. That a man of his ability, scientific devotion, and of such strong personal loyalties as he gave and received, should have been warped in the land of his birth must remain a matter for regret.

Just was buffeted about all his life, often without his knowledge, by men like Loeb, Flexner, and Lillie. Yet his remarkable will and assiduous gift of self-promotion helped him to survive in America and kept him active in research, until Europe beckoned convincingly, and his research, if anything, flourished more.

Yet, as Manning shows so well, we must avoid the temptation to read the story of Just’s life as a morality play with Just as a thoroughly exemplary, long-suffering, blameless hero crushed by forces beyond his control. Much of this reading is correct, certainly the pervasive paternalistic racism that Just could not hope to overcome in America. But Just was also an ambiguous and contradictory man—and by no means an entirely sympathetic character. He was deeply conservative and never understood the politics of racism (his first published schoolboy essay extolled the benefits of monopoly in American economic life). Thus he never sought solidarity in action with other American blacks, but simply persevered in his struggle for support for his own research. When blocked or treated unfairly, he would often lash out in self-destructive anger, as at Woods Hole in 1930, never seeming to grasp his larger situation.

The kindest thing one can say (and one might be considerably less kind) about his reaction to the growth of fascism in Europe is that in the understandable joy he felt for his new life there, he demonstrated an almost incredible naiveté. He actively sought and won the friendship of the former Hohenzollern crown prince, the son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and participated in two monarchist gatherings at his house, one with strong Nazi undertones. He approached Mussolini directly in appeals for funding, praising Il Duce in an embarrassing and obsequious tone. He showed more than a small streak of anti-Semitism, especially when seeking funds from sources known for their own antipathy toward Jews.

In a way, though, this complexity makes Just’s story all the more interesting and instructive. We modern liberals, perhaps bathed in our own hypocrisy, might feel more sympathetic toward a fighter like Jackie Robinson than a man like Roy Campanella who just wanted to play ball as best he could and was willing to suffer the indignities of racism in silence—as we might prefer Martin Luther King, Jr., to a man like Just. But didn’t Campanella have as much right as Robinson to his place with the Dodgers and his niche in the Hall of Fame—for he was every bit as good a catcher as Robinson was an infielder, and in a world of true justice surely nothing else would count.

Just also deserved his birthright—the chance to compete and triumpth by virtue of his clear genius—whatever his dubious personal politics. The irony of the last twenty years in civil rights is that a few people like Just, blacks comparatively well off and with a good education, have won a world of opportunity. A black valedictorian at Dartmouth can now write his own ticket; Just was permanently stymied from the start. He didn’t seem to care much for the plight of poor blacks, the group that has won so little from their struggle. Yet he is the very man who would have benefited most. The painful story of Just’s life underscores the most important question of all: how can we secure these benefits for everybody?

  1. *

    Since Manning chose to write a social and institutional biography, he does not adequately treat Just’s subtle and interesting biological philosophy. Limits of space and the need to review Manning’s book as written also preclude my discussing the subject in sufficient depth here. My January 1984 column in Natural History magazine will be devoted to Just’s biological work.

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