Born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1883, Ernest Just was raised by his mother, a schoolteacher, to respect education and his own intellectual abilities. Those abilities led to a brilliant career at Dartmouth College, a department chairmanship at Howard University and a board position with the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Just spent his career overcoming discrimination in American laboratories in order to pursue his passion — the study of the cell, the basic unit of life. Working carefully and patiently with the simplest of sea animals, such as the sandworm, Just made new discoveries about fertilization, cell development and the cell surface itself. More importantly, Just’s painstaking research allowed him to argue convincingly that nature could not be understood by breaking it down into atoms and molecules, any more than music could be understood by focusing on individual notes. Like music, he believed nature’s arrangement of its elements was the key to understanding, and living things must be studied as a whole within their environments. Beginning in 1929, Just spent part of each year working in Europe where his work was well-known and his race was not an issue. With the German invasion of France in 1940, he returned to America where, sick with cancer and worn down with the struggle to pursue his research, he passed away the following year. Prior to his death, he summarized his life’s work in his book The Biology of the Cell Surface.
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