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Despite Major Life Setbacks, Roger Arliner Young Became First African-American Woman To Earn A PhD in Zoology

Credit: Marine Biological Laboratory Archives

 

She was shattered, broken, and confused when it became clear that her dream of earning a Ph.D. was a pipedream after failing her entry exam on the first try.

To make matters worse, she was fired from her position by her mentor during a difficult period. Instead of allowing the misfortune to overwhelm her, she took another leap of faith to give herself another chance at her Ph.D. dream.

That is how Roger Arliner Young became the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate in zoology, after years of research and lecturing while caring for her sick mother.

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Her early years were spent in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania. According to sdsc.edu, she applied to Howard University in 1916.

Ernest Everett Just, a prominent Black biologist and the head of the zoology department at Howard University, gave Young her first opportunity to study science. Despite Young’s low grades, he decided to mentor her because he saw greatness in her. Young completed her bachelor’s degree in 1923.

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Under the mentorship of the Black biologist, she excelled in her academics. Some argue that Just chose Young as a mentor because men were more likely to leave the classroom to pursue lucrative careers in medicine. Just was in charge of finding funding for Young to attend graduate school.

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In 1924, she was admitted as a part-time student to the University of Chicago. Following that, she received excellent grades and was asked to join Sigma Xi, an unusual honor for a master’s student.

In 1924, she published her first article in Science, “On the Excretory Apparatus in Paramecium.” Young earned his master’s degree in 1926.

Starting in 1927, Just asked her to work with him during the summers at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

She took part in Just’s study of the fertilization process in marine organisms. Young was primarily interested in the hydration and dehydration processes that occur in living cells. She was described as a zoology genius at one point.

At one point, Young held down the fort as Head of the Howard zoology department while Just pursued other interests in Europe in connection with a grant project.

Young’s misfortune began when she returned to Chicago to begin her doctoral program with embryologist Frank Lillie. Young failed her entrance examination in 1930.

This was a difficult blow for her, especially since her mother was critically ill. She isolated herself from her friends and family, leaving no trace of her whereabouts.

Lillie, her supervisor in Chicago, became concerned and informed Howard’s president about her mental state. She was called back to Howard University to teach and work at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution during the summers. Just, however, fired her in 1936 for missing classes and mistreating lab equipment.

She saw this as an opportunity to shine and applied to the University of Pennsylvania in 1937 to begin a doctorate under L.V. Heilbrunn. In 1940, she received her Ph.D.

She accepted a position as an assistant professor at North Carolina College for Negroes in Raleigh. She worked on short-term contracts in Texas and at Mississippi’s Jackson State University.

She was hospitalized at the State Mental Asylum in Mississippi in the late 1950s. She was released in 1962 and enrolled at Southern University in New Orleans. On November 9, 1964, she died poor and alone.

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