Turner, Just, and Young: Biologists

Day 17 of black history month, I want to highlight the work of three pioneering zoologists who were contemporaries in the early 20th century – Charles Henry Turner, Ernest Everett Just, and Roger Arliner Young (who was a woman).

Racists are fond of lampooning african americans by comparing them to monkeys or claiming their natural environment is huts near lions. However, early 20th century racists were also fond of not letting african american biologists near the glory of large animals beloved by the public. Too prestigious!

Fortunately, science is often significantly advanced by people off in corners studying little weird stuff. Joke’s on you, racists.

Charles Henry Turner (1867-1923) proved that bees see color. He proved that cockroaches can remember things. He proved that bugs can hear. We didn’t know! We didn’t know whether bugs could hear. He even studied the brains of crustaceans (sea bugs). He described how ants circle around to find things, and investigated the emotional lives of spiders. He was a genius. I love him.

Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941) focused on the eggs of marine invertebrates, which is freaking obscure, right? He became the best at it pretty much immediately. Don’t want to work with a black guy? Too bad because this is the best guy in the world at handling marine invertebrate eggs. And through paying so much attention to those eggs…he made huge contributions to our understanding of cell biology. Even his idea that you could study how cells act as a whole, instead of just thinking about their tiny insides, was game-changing. (He also discovered a lot of what we know about their tiny insides.) If you are interested in reading more about someone who has a “Theory of Ectoplasm” this is your guy. He was a genius. I love him.

Roger Arliner Young (1889-1964) started out studying music, but met up with Ernest Everett Just and switched to marine biology. They collaborated a lot and she was very likely an uncredited coauthor on a lot of his stuff. She also discovered all kinds of things about paramecia, and building off that, figured out a lot of what we know about the processes of hydration and dehydration of living cells. Oh, and how they’re affected by radiation, particularly egg cells. She was a genius. She had an especially rough time on account of being a woman as well as african american. I love her.