Ernest Just was born on August 14, 1883 in Charleston, South Carolina. His mother worked as a school teacher and his father, a dock worker, died when Ernest was only four years old, forcing him to have to work in the fields after school each day. Because high schools in the South provided such poor education at that time, Ernest’s mother decided to send him North to receive better schooling. Through hard work, Ernest was able to earn enough money to attend the Kimball Academy in New Hampshire. The Kimball Academy was an exclusive school and Just proved himself worthy by excelling in his classes. As the editor of the school newspaper and President of the debating team, Ernest completed the four year program in only three, graduating with honors as the valedictorian of his class.
In 1903, Just entered Dartmouth College and decided to become a research biologist specializing in cytology (the study of cells). Learning under the guidance of world famous zoologist William Patten, Just excelled and received degrees in history and biology. Upon graduation in 1907, he had already been elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honors fraternity, was named class valedictorian and was the only member of his class to graduate Magna Cum Laude.
In October 1907, Ernest Just was hired by Howard University in Washington, D.C. and would eventually become the head of the biology department while also heading the physiology department and serving as a member of the Medical School’s faculty. With all of these responsibilities, Just was still able to pursue a Ph.D. in Zoology, which he received in 1916 from the University of Chicago. He experimented with the reproductive systems and cells of marine animals in the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. His research and papers on Marine biology were so well received that in 1915, at age 32, Just was awarded the first Spingarn Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored