It was during his university years that Just discovered an interest in biology after reading a paper on fertilization and egg development. This bright young man earned the highest grades in Greek during his freshman year, and was selected as a Rufus Choate scholar for two years. He graduated as the sole magna cum laude student in 1907, also receiving honors in botany, sociology and history.
Just’s first job out of college was as a teacher and researcher at the traditionally all-black Howard University. Later, in 1909, he worked in research at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts. Just furthered his education by obtaining a Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Chicago, where he studied experimental embryology and graduated magna cum laude.
Just pioneered many areas on the physiology of development, including fertilization, experimental parthenogenesis, hydration, cell division, dehydration in living cells and ultraviolet carcinogenic radiation effects on cells.
Just also served as editor of three scholarly periodicals and, in 1915, won the NAACP’s first Spingarn Medal for outstanding achievement by a black American. From 1920 to 1931, he was a Julius Rosenwald Fellow in Biology of the National Research Council—a position that provided him the chance to work in Europe when racial discrimination hindered his opportunities in the United States. During this time, Just penned many research papers, including the 1924 publication “General Cytology,” which he co-authored with respected scientists from Princeton University, the University of Chicago, the National Academy of Sciences and the Marine Biological Laboratory.
Just married high school teacher Ethel Highwarden on June 26, 1912, and together they had three children—Margaret, Highwarden and Maribel—before divorcing in 1939. That same year, Just married Hedwig Schnetzler, a philosophy student he had met in Berlin. In 1940, the German Nazis imprisoned Just in a camp, but, with the help of his wife’s father, he was released. After making their way out of France, the couple gave birth to daughter Elisabeth.
Earnest Just died of pancreatic cancer in Washington, D.C., on October 27, 1941. He is buried at the Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, Maryland.