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W. Malcolm Byrnes, Ph.D.
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
15 May 2013

Walking in the Footsteps of Ernest Everett Just at the Stazione Zoologica in Naples: Celebration of a Friendship*

      As I write this essay, I am flying over the Atlantic Ocean, on my way back to Washington, D.C., from Rome, Italy. Two days ago, I was in Naples, where I gave a talk at a symposium held at the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn, a marine biological laboratory with an international reputation that extends back almost 150 years. I had been invited by Dr. Luigia Santella, a developmental biologist who studies the structural changes that occur in the egg of the starfish Astropecten during fertilization. But Santella is no ordinary scientist, and this was no ordinary symposium. She recently has become interested in the pioneering African-American embryologist E. E. Just, who regularly visited Naples and the Stazione starting in 1929, when he was 45. The symposium Dr. Santella organized, entitled “The Dynamically Active Egg: The Legacy of Ernest Everett Just,” was centered on Just and his work. Even more than this, though, the event was a celebration of the friendship that flourished between this American scientist and the people of a place that became for him a home away from home, a refuge from the hardships associated with being Black in early 20th century America. My talk gave an overview of Just’s contributions. In this essay, I will attempt to first give a bit of background about Just’s life; second, relate some of what is known about his experiences at the Stazione in Naples; third, describe my own recent visit there; and fourth, share some of the insights I have gained from walking in the footsteps, so to speak, of E. E. Just in Naples.

      Ernest Everett Just was a faculty member at Howard from 1907 until his death in 1941. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1883, he received his undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College and a Ph.D. in Zoology from the University of Chicago. From 1911 until 1929, while a professor at Howard, Just spent his summers doing research at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole, Mass., where he studied fertilization and early development in marine invertebrates. The animals whose eggs and embryos he studied included the sea urchin, the sand dollar, various marine worms, and the starfish. His mentor was embryologist Frank R. Lillie, who was both the director of the MBL and the chair of the Department of Zoology at the University of Chicago. At Woods Hole, Just rose from student apprentice to internationally recognized scientist. Few could match his ability to coax fertilized eggs to develop to maturity; and his knowledge of the natural history of the animals he studied was legendary. He published his work in respected journals, and his papers were frequently cited, especially by Europeans.

      It was largely to broaden his scientific horizons that, in 1929, Just paid his first visit to the Stazione in Naples. While there, he worked at a research table reserved for Americans. He met scientists from all over the world, each of whom had her own table at the laboratory.

Capri, as seen from the top of Monte Solara.


Some of the symposium speakers (Christiane Groeben is missing) standing on the Via Francesco Caracciolo along the Bay of Naples with the Castel dell’Ovo in the distance (far right). From left to right: Luigia Santella, Kenneth Manning, Stuart Newman, the author, and Jura Newman.

His host was Reinhard Dohrn, the son of the Stazione’s energetic and influential founder Anton Dohrn. Just’s host was welcoming, expressive and cultured—he came to represent for Just all that was good about Europe — and the two men became close friends. But Just was welcomed by many. The occasional American who snubbed him seemed out of place, and likely served only to remind him of how different things were back home in America. Just apparently was especially popular with the women scientists, who called him their “Black Apollo”—this is the origin of the title of Manning’s biography Black Apollo of Science. His research went exceedingly well: he was able to show that two different kinds of marine worm that were thought to be the same species were in fact different species, as he had suspected. He also was able to expand his investigation of a particular theory of fertilization that he and Lillie had developed, known as the “fertilizin” theory, to additional species of sea urchin. He was so reluctant to leave Naples that he extended his stay for two more months, arriving back in the United States just in time to begin his teaching duties at the university.

      Just made many more trips to Europe (maybe 10 in all) after this first one to Naples. He travelled to Berlin-Dahlem, to Paris, and to the small marine station at Roscoff, a fishing village on the rugged Brittany coast of France. He was well-received; sometimes even treated as a celebrity. The quality and importance of his work was appreciated. But Naples was his first love. He returned there often, especially when the political situation began to grow tense with the rise of Nazism in Germany. He would visit Reinhard Dohrn at the Stazione and spend time relaxing with the Dohrn family at their vacation home on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples. He visited Capri.

      On my own journey to Naples to speak about Just, I asked myself: What is it about Naples that might have been so special to him? It was not long before I had a partial answer to this question in the overwhelming hospitality that was shown to me (and others). Dr. Santella really rolled out the red carpet for us out-of-towners, of whom there were two besides me: Just’s biographer Ken Manning, and Stuart Newman, a cell and developmental biologist at New York Medical College in Valhalla. Dr. Santella put us up in a four-star hotel; she treated us to a sumptuous seafood feast at a restaurant nestled between the walls of the historic and aptly-named Castel dell’Ovo on the night before the symposium; and she contacted the U. S. Consul General in Naples, Donald Moore, who graciously hosted a post-symposium cocktail reception in our honor on his rooftop terrace overlooking the Bay of Naples and the Stazione itself. The generosity we were shown far exceeded our expectations.

      Dr. Santella’s own talk at the symposium described her laboratory’s recent experiments investigating the cortical actin cytoskeleton of the starfish egg and how it changes during fertilization. She is passionate about promoting Just’s legacy, which she sees as being highly relevant and underappreciated. In one conversation we had, she told me about her desire to seek funding for an American student to travel to Naples and work in her laboratory on unresolved questions that stem from Just’s own experiments done nearly a century ago. I can still hear her telling us, “You know, Just was right.”

The Santella research group standing in front of the historic aquarium at the Stazione. From left to right: Filip Vasilev , postdoctoral researcher; Jong T. Chun, senior researcher; Luigia Santella , research director; Nunzia Limatola, PhD student; Giovanni Gragnaniello and Ezio Garante, laboratory technicians.

A view of the Stazione from the rooftop of a building nearby.

      If Just received anything close to the caliber of hospitality that my colleagues and I did in Naples, that alone would likely have been enough to win over his heart. But I think that, in Just’s case, much more was going on. I believe that what happened in Naples was actually transformative in the sense that Just was irrevocably changed by the experience; he was a different person afterward. There is evidence that he carried the“Naples experience” with him for the rest of his life. Christiane Groeben, one of the speakers at the symposium and a historian at the Stazione, related to us how Just had told his friend Dohrn in a letter that “one gets the Stazione and Naples into one’s blood.” Like a recurring malarial fever, the desire to return to Naples periodically surged within him. Yet, beyond this desire, beyond this longing, which occurred on an emotional level, there was an impact that was deeper still. The experience told him that he was worth something, and that his ideas about biology were valuable. Strengthened by the acceptance he received, he was emboldened to go forth and pursue his ideas fully.

      After Naples and his subsequent trip to Germany in 1930 during which time he received further confirmation of the importance of his work, Just became much more assertive. His talks and publications took on a philosophical tenor. He began to challenge some of the giants of biology, including Thomas Hunt Morgan, the future Nobel laureate, and Jacques Loeb, a prominent physiologist. At the same time, he was becoming disillusioned with America and American biology. He gravitated toward Europe and European ideas. Sensing rejection, his American colleagues, in turn, forcefully rejected him; they treated him as an “outsider” and refused to cite his work. In 1938, Just tried to make a permanent break with America. He and his new second wife, Hedwig Schnetzler, a German citizen, moved to the biological station at Roscoff. Intending to stay in France indefinitely, they were forced by the Nazi invasion to leave the country. They traveled to the United States, she to East Orange, N.J., where she had family, and he to Washington, where teaching awaited him at Howard. But by late October 1941, Just had died from pancreatic cancer. He was 58.

      Now, as I sit in my airline seat, personal TV screens flickering dimly around me and the air rushing quietly by outside, I ask myself, what insights have I gained from this journey? I see several. First, I believe that the experiences Just had in Naples were very human ones. They were ones to which we all can relate; they tell a story about love and acceptance and what these can do for the human spirit. After Naples, Just was a different person. He had tasted freedom, and he did not want to let go of it. I find his reaction eminently understandable. Second, I wonder how things would have been different for Just if he had not had the Naples experience. My guess is that he would have continued doing excellent work at Woods Hole, but that his work would not have had the breadth of vision that so clearly marked his later contributions. If this had happened, if the vision were absent, then all of biology would have been impoverished. The bold ideas that Just articulated, such as his “theory of genetic restriction” that challenged Morgan’s gene theory, may have remained forever unspoken, or worse, completely undeveloped. Thirdly and similarly, if Just had not made the voyage to Naples, he may not have become the role model he now is for any scientist who strives to challenge accepted ways of thinking. E. E. Just is known as someone who persevered despite almost insuperable odds, and who confidently spoke his mind about ideas he felt were true based on his experimental results. Fortunately for us, he did become the bold and articulate spokesman we now recognize him to have been. We have Naples and the Stazione to thank for much of this.  

*Please note that all of the biographical information in this essay comes from MIT science historian Kenneth Manning’s excellent book, Black Apollo of Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), about the life of Just.

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