Thwarted Genius

Ernest Everett Just
Ernest Everett Just; drawing by David Levine

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…

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