Life Lessons From the First African-American Marine Biologist

Jul 7, 2015

Earnest Everett Just is considered the first African-American marine biologist. Born in Charleston, SC, in 1883, he went on to study at Dartmouth College and University of Chicago. He led the zoology department at Howard University, published more than seventy scientific papers and two books, and made pioneering contributions to our understanding of fertilization and egg development.

But those accomplishments did not come without costs. While many of the challenges Everett faced were unique to his race and time, others are more persistant, and universal.

Dionne Hoskins is an African-American marine biologist today. Her interest in ocean animals dates back to childhood afternoons spent shrimping near her home in Savannah, Georgia, and has propelled her career. But uncovering the history of African-Americans in fisheries and in academic science has been an integral part of her work.

Hoskins first encountered the story of Just's life as a college student, but it was several years later that she really connected with it. She was the only black student in her doctoral program, and one of two spending the summer at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole - as Just did for much of his career - when she decided to read Kenneth Manning's biography of Just, Black Apollo of Science.

"It was a wonderful walking tour - walking guide - to Woods Hole," says Hoskins. "It was very comforting to me."

Hoskins spent her time outside the lab reading about Just's life and looking up his scientific papers. At the end of the summer, she made two presentations to her class - one about her microbiology research, and one about Earnest Everett Just. Hoskins emphasizes that she is not a Just scholar, but her exploration of his life has shaped her career.

"I do not carry away the tragedy. I do not carry away the disappointment," says Hoskins. "What I really take from it is the absolute courage and entitlement to a satisfying life and a satisfying career that he kept throughout his career."

Hoskins says the lessons she learned from Just and now shares with her students are that all scientists are obligated to acknowledge and address their own weaknesses and to do excellent work - regardless of race or gender.