How A Brilliant Biologist Was Failed By Science

Roger Arliner Young’s brilliant made her the first black woman in the US to hold a doctorate in zoology. But her academic promise was failed by science a system too rooted in prejudice to accept her as an equal.

How a brilliant biologist was failed by science

In 1923, when Roger Arliner Young graduated from Howard University with her bachelor’s degree, she scrawled these words next to her photo: “Not failure, but low aim is a crime.” She would live by that maxim for the next decade, making waves in biology and rising through science and academia at a remarkable speed.

Before even earning her master’s degree, Young became the first black woman to publish a paper in the prestigious journal Science, resulting in an international reputation for discovering the structure of Paramecium – a species of water-dwelling single-celled organisms.

For this research, her mentor and eminent biologist Ernest Everett Just praised her as a “real genius in zoology”.

Later, as acting head of Howard University’s zoology department, Young broke new ground as the first black woman in the Sigma Xi fraternity for scientists and engineers. She also became the first black woman to conduct research at the internationally renowned Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

In the early 20th Century, less than 50 years after the end of slavery, it was indeed remarkable that a black woman was able to accomplish such heights. White women in the United States were enrolling in higher education and entering the sciences in unprecedented numbers.

But black women continued to be denied such access and opportunity, trailing the entry of white women in the sciences by about 60 years.

In her survey of black women science PhDs, historian Wini Warren found that between 1876 and 1969, about 650 black people received doctorates in the natural sciences; only 58 doctorates were held by black women.

Young would become one of them in 1940 – and the first in zoology.

Despite her accomplishments, it was a time of segregation in the American South and a time when eugenics pervaded US science. Young constantly had to battle against forces that sought to make her invisible and silent.


When Young first enrolled in Howard University in Washington DC in 1916 at the age of 17, she intended to study music – a “proper” feminine pursuit. But in the spring semester of 1921, she took her first science course: general zoology. She followed it with one in vertebrate and invertebrate embryology.

When Young graduated in 1923, she wrote in her personal yearbook statement that she intended to go into “social service work”. But her plans quickly changed when Just, her zoology professor and head of Howard’s zoology department, offered her a position as his research assistant and as assistant professor of zoology after graduation. She took the opportunity, and on her own dime, enrolled in the University of Chicago for her master’s degree in zoology.

Despite taking only two zoology courses, Young was promoted to faculty quickly. Just seems to have had his own reasons for this.

He was in the throes of one of the most productive periods of his own research career in marine biology and was three years into a 10-year research fellowship with the Julius Rosenwald Foundation and the National Research Council. He needed Young’s help balancing his departmental duties at Howard and his own research.

Just even sought financial assistance for Young so she could continue at the University of Chicago – and so she could continue to support his own work.

In her archival research on Young, historian and women’s and gender studies scholar Sarah Díaz found a 1925 letter from Just to the General Education Board requesting funding. He needed “competent help”, he wrote. “This I can get better from a woman perhaps than a man because the lure of medicine is not so strong” for women.

Whatever Just’s reasons, Young was clearly a talented research scientist: within one year of embarking on her new path in zoology, she published her first paper in the illustrious journal Science.

Young’s observations were unique. Just noticed, too: he once said Young eclipsed even him in “technical excellence”. And her findings on Paramecia caudatum preceded the similar conclusions of the more senior scientist and Rockefeller Fellow Dmitriy Nasonov by two months.

In 1927, a year after earning her master’s degree in zoology from Chicago, Young started to accompany Just on summer research trips to Woods Hole, one of the world’s foremost institutions for biological science.

To be counted among the scientists there underscored Young’s skill and signalled her promise in the field.

‘Not failure, but low aim is a crime’

In June 1929, Young began her PhD in zoology at the University of Chicago under Frank Rattray Lillie. Her experiments testing the effects of ultraviolet radiation on marine eggs at Woods Hole would serve as the starting point for her dissertation.

Meanwhile, her duties at Howard became much heavier when Just left for a research trip in Europe and appointed her acting head of the zoology department. On top of her own doctoral research in Chicago, Young was tasked with continuing her assistant professorship position – as well as running a university science department 700 miles away in Washington DC.

Young’s duties as department head included scheduling classes for faculty, handling disciplinary and grading issues, negotiating with external funders, and more. “It’s important to note that in the contemporary moment, it is rare for a department chair to be a junior faculty member, and absolutely unheard of for them to be a graduate student,” says Díaz. Such an arrangement is discouraged for good reason because it “often works against [the student’s] own scholarly progress”.

That is exactly what happened in Young’s case.

The next day, Lillie informed Young that her candidacy for a doctoral degree at Chicago was over. Even though Young’s allies in the field wrote to Lillie asking him to reconsider her dismissal, Lillie had made up his mind.

At a breaking point, Young wrote to Lillie explaining the struggle of juggling her responsibilities to Howard and to her doctoral research.

The trouble is that for two years I’ve tried to keep going under responsibilities that were not wholly mine but were not shared and the weight of it has simply worn me out – Roger Arliner Young

“The trouble is that for two years I’ve tried to keep going under responsibilities that were not wholly mine but were not shared and the weight of it has simply worn me out,” she wrote. “I forced myself on so long that I automatically accepted arrangement for the examination which I knew the first of last August I would fail unless there was some relief. Instead of relief the situation has become worse since I’ve come here.”

It didn’t change Lillie’s mind. When Young returned to Howard, her failure at Chicago clouded her career. Her once respected position as a budding scientist was in jeopardy.

Forces beyond her control

Lillie was Just’s former mentor; Young’s failure reflected poorly on him. And Just faced his own pressures and challenges.

For black intellectuals and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Howard, science represented a chance at “racial uplift”.

Emerging during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, racial uplift was a project spearheaded by black middle-class leaders and intellectuals to improve the lives of black people after the fall of slavery.

Instead of just training black people in a vocation, Howard could train them for careers in science, with the hope of giving black people an opportunity to enter mainstream intellectual and modern US life.

As well as Young’s mentor, Ernest Just, shown here in 1925, was a towering figure in Howard University’s biology department (Credit: Marine Biological Laboratory Archives)

“They’re both working at an HBCU, which was part of this project of racial uplift, that’s financially strapped and that’s trying to convince largely white funders to invest in them as a demonstration of black scientific excellence,” says Díaz. “There’s a lot at stake.”

Young’s failure at Chicago disrupted these plans. When Just returned from Europe later that year, instead of greeting Young with the encouragement of a supportive mentor, he showed her a cold shoulder.

Meanwhile, US science was rife with eugenics during this period. As part of a biological science, both Just and Young would not have been able to escape its presence – even their mentor, Lillie, was an advocate.

As a member of the Eugenics Education Society and advisor for the Eugenics Committee of the United States, Lillie promoted the idea that behaviour was an expression of genetic heredity and that people of colour were genetically inferior to white people.

Frank Rattray Lillie was Young’s advisor – and an advocate of eugenics and of the idea that people of colour were inferior (Credit: Marine Biological Laboratory Archives)

When Díaz searched Lillie’s archive, she found a note Lillie had made about Young: he described her as having “unfit mental condition.” He saw her exam failure as evidence not that institutions and Just were failing Young, but that Young was mentally unwell and inherently unfit for scientific excellence.

In his last letter to Young, Lillie wrote, “I cannot continue to be in any sense responsible for your work.”

Meanwhile, Young’s relationship with Just continued to dissolve. Just avoided meeting with Young to discuss her research, and he scheduled Young’s classes at unusual times, effectively lowering her enrollment in her courses. Over the course of several years, he reprimanded her through what Díaz calls a “paper trail” of memos.

In one instance, he chided her for not returning equipment (she replied that she needed it for her research). In another, he accused her of grading students too harshly (only for her to remind him that she was following the rules he, as department head, had enforced).

“I think a lot of [Young’s behaviour] was business as usual,” Díaz says. “But by framing it as her ‘violating rules’ or ‘being difficult’, it was his way of creating a paper trail to justify letting her go.”

You seem to be making a deliberate effort to keep me from doing any research – Young

Even though Young continued to return to Woods Hole for research and to present papers there, she found it difficult to make much progress amidst the deteriorating situation at Howard.

In 1935, Young confronted Just in a letter, writing: “You seem to be making a deliberate effort to keep me from doing any research… This type of thing is so averse to a true scientific or real university spirit that for a long time I have tried not to believe that is the correct expression of your sincere attitude.”

Within a year of receiving this letter, Just fired Young.

Lewis V Heilbrunn became Young’s mentor at the University of Pennsylvania, co-authoring two papers with her (Credit: Marine Biological Laboratory Archives)

It is not a coincidence that Young was most productive before and after she served as Just’s assistant – or that Just was most productive when she was his assistant.

Between 1928 and 1931, Díaz says Just published 20 papers. None made any acknowledgement of Young’s contributions. Young published no papers of her own.

In science history, women’s work in science has often been in support of, and then eclipsed by, that of a more visible man. The gendered view of Young’s work as an assistant collided with the racist structure of American institutions and science.

But while she was expected to accept this arrangement tacitly and without complaint, she seemingly refused to do so.

Activist scientist

On 5 July 1946, Young took a bus through Nashville, North Carolina to meet with tobacco workers as part of her job as an organiser with the American Federation of Labor.

The bus driver called the police when Young refused to give up her seat for a white man and move to the back of the bus. The New Journal and Guide newspaper reported that the police dragged her from the bus and threw her in a police car.

A group of black women in the city advocated for her release, and in response, the mayor presented Young with a deal: apologise in exchange for dropped charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Young refused. Shortly after, she was transferred to the county jail where a local citizen paid the $200 bail for her release.

It was a telling example of how Young’s career, and life, had changed.

After her last two papers with Heilbrunn, many historians had thought Young disappeared because she stopped producing research. In fact, she kept teaching – and began a new life in organising for labour and racial justice.

She lived in Durham, a seemingly progressive place for black people, with its own “Black Wall Street” sector.

But according to historian and Afro-American studies scholar Christina Greene in her book Our Separate Ways, Women and the Black Freedom Movement in Durham, North Carolina, the state was staunchly anti-union, and the businessmen of Black Wall Street, who held positions of influence in the local NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and HBCUs, prioritised economic advancement over social progress and enfranchisement.  

Her organising activities with so-called “subversive” organisations didn’t go unnoticed by the businessmen whose power she challenged, including the president of NCC. Díaz says that her activities violated the assumed politics of respectability to which she was expected to conform.

All of this came to head when she was arrested in 1946. Even though the black community rallied around her and the charges were ultimately changed to breaking segregation laws, her arrest while participating in labour organising was too much for those at the local HBCUs.

Díaz explains: “Being involved in civil rights and labour organising at a time when this community of black capitalists were really working hard to maintain race relations with white capitalists in the city, to be visible in that way, as a woman, as a scholar… would have made her highly visible to her administration.”

Less than a year after her arrest, she started teaching once again at NCC, and was promptly fired months later. Historian Greene says that Young tried to apply for two more jobs in the following nine months but was rejected. In an email to BBC Future, Greene speculates that Young was blacklisted for her activities, which was common during this time.

“Blacklisting was both formal and informal and not always easy to document; and academics were prime targets for the post-World War Two anti-communist witch hunt,” Greene writes. “Add to that, she was a black woman doing labour organising and was affiliated with presumably ‘subversive’ organisations… so she had multiple strikes against her.”

Díaz also argues that blacklisting was likely, since Young never worked in an HBCU on the East coast again. She doesn’t reappear in the historical record until six years later at a small HBCU, Bishop College, in Marshall, Texas.

While her organising might seem secondary to her scientific career, the two were deeply intertwined, Díaz says. “That work that she did for her community was deeply important to her, and ultimately what cost her her career.”

The stories we tell

After her dismissal and subsequent blacklisting from HBCUs on the East coast, Young’s career became fragmented. She never occupied teaching positions throughout the South for more than a couple of years. Her precarious state of employment had drained her finances, and because of her work with UV light all those years ago in Woods Hole, she was losing her eyesight.

“I’m so scared I’m numb,” she wrote to a physician and former Howard colleague in 1955. “What can I do? I’ve driven myself for 25 years.”

I’m so scared I’m numb – Young

Even though her friend wrote back, offering to find her free medical care if she could find a way to travel to New York, it doesn’t seem like Young ever made it. After working for a short time at Jackson State University as a science professor, she admitted herself to the Mississippi State Asylum and died shortly after in New Orleans in 1964. She was 65 years old.

Young’s words, some of her last recorded, are haunting. Díaz says that they are a reminder of how far people can be pushed. “It took 25 years before she started to crumble under it. Which is amazing,” she says. “But we do have limits to just how much oppression and isolation we can take.”

During her lifetime, Young’s career was shaped by forces beyond her control. In death, her story has been subject to yet another injustice. Díaz says that there is no archive dedicated to Young, and as a result, her story is told mainly through the notes and letters of Just and Lillie.

As such, she has been portrayed as a “difficult woman” who was mentally unwell throughout her professional life – and whose failure to become more than a footnote in the stories of successful men was her own doing.

But when we look closer, we find a woman who aimed high for herself and for other black people. It’s easy to imagine how different her career could have been if science had been a more equal, a more democratic institution. And in seeing her potential, it’s easy to imagine what science lost in Young because of its – and not her – failure.

Originally published at BBC

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