Roger Arliner Young

Roger Arliner Young

Roger Arliner Young was the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate in zoology, after years of juggling research and teaching with the burden of caring for her invalid mother. Her story is one of grit and perseverance.

Roger Arliner Young grew up in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania. In 1916, she entered Howard University. In 1921, she took her first science course, under Ernest Everett Just, a prominent black biologist and head of the zoology department at Howard. Although her grades were poor, Just saw some promise and started mentoring Young. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1923.

Her relationship with Just improved her skills, and he continued working with her. According to his biographer, Just probably chose a woman protégé because he thought men more likely to pursue lucrative careers in medicine than to remain in academe. Just helped Young find funding to attend graduate school.

In 1924 she entered the University of Chicago part-time. Her grades improved dramatically. She was asked to join Sigma Xi, an unusual honor for a master’s student. She also began publishing her research. Her first article, “On the Excretory Apparatus in Paramecium,” appeared in Science in September 1924. She obtained her master’s degree in 1926. 

Just invited Young to work with him during the summers at the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, starting in 1927. Young assisted him with research on the fertilization process in marine organisms. She also worked on the processes of hydration and dehydration in living cells. Her expertise grew, and Just called her a “real genius in zoology.”

Early in 1929, Young stood in for Just as head of the Howard zoology department while Just worked on a grant project in Europe. It was the first of many trips to Europe for Just and the first of many stand-in appointments for Young. In the fall of that year, Young returned to Chicago to start a Ph.D. under the direction of Frank Lillie, the embryologist who had been Just’s mentor at Woods Hole. But she failed her qualifying exams in January 1930.

She had given little indication of stress, but the failure to qualify was devastating. She was broke and still had to care for her mother. She left and told no one her whereabouts. Lillie, deeply concerned, wrote the president of Howard about her mental condition. She eventually returned to Howard to teach and continued working at Woods Hole in the summers, but her relationship with Just cooled considerably.

Just started easing her out of her position in 1933. There had been rumors about romance between Just and Young. Various accusations were exchanged. They had a confrontation in 1935, and in 1936 she was fired, ostensibly for missing classes and mistreating lab equipment.

She took her firing as an opportunity. In June 1937, she went to the University of Pennsylvania to begin a doctorate under L. V. Heilbrunn, who had befriended her at Woods Hole and gave her the aid she needed to continue. She earned her Ph.D. in 1940.

She took an assistant professorship at the North Carolina College for Negroes in Raleigh. Unfortunately, her mental health failed again. She worked short contracts in Texas and at Jackson State College in Mississippi. While in Mississippi in the late 1950s, she was hospitalized at the State Mental Asylum. She was discharged in 1962 and she went to Southern University in New Orleans. She died, poor and alone, on November 9, 1964.