Lesson 121:
Roger Arliner Young

An ongoing illustrative history study
This piece originally posted 3/16/2023

Prelude | 117 | 118 | 119 | 120 | 121 | 122 | 123 | 124 | 125 | Email

Roger Arliner Young - pen and ink, 2.5 in. x 3.5 in.

"Not failure, but low aim is a crime."

Meet Roger Arliner Young, the very first Black woman to attain a Ph.D in Zoology. Born in 1889 Virginia, Young originally had her heart set on a career in music but after working with Ernest Everett Just, a particularly gifted (and famous in his own right) teacher at Howard University, she chose to pivot to biology. She earned her BS in biology in 1923, then a Master's in that same subject at the University of Chicago in Illinois, in 1926. She was elected to the honor society Sigma Xi and published her first paper, "On the Excretory Apparatus in Paramecium" which addressed the newly-discovered coordinated behavior of a paramecium's individual organelles during the process of digestion. The paper was then reprinted in the prestigious journal Science. Having worked with her so extensively during her undergraduate years, Just was able to recommend Young to a research position at the prestigious Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, where she tested the effects of ultraviolet radiation on marine eggs.

Similarly to Carolyn Beatrice Parker (Lesson #119 in this series), Young's science career trajectory repeatedly stalled --and for much the same reason; i.e., being a Black woman in a nearly-exclusively white male domain, and only able to benefit from a fraction of the usual advantages in such a pursuit. While, unlike Parker, Young was ultimately successful in securing her Ph.D. (in this instance from the University of Pennsylvania), this goal nevertheless came up against a number of obstacles that simply wouldn't have been an issue for most white men. Despite successfully publishing four journal articles during this time period, she also had to extricate herself from at least one (untrue) romantic scandal, had to repeatedly put her work on hold to care for her terminally ill mother, and failed the qualifying exam on the first go-around --to say nothing of the intense racial and misogynist prejudices that were so prevalent in the scientific community at the time. An added handicap was her own mentor/advisor at the University of Chicago during this time: Frank Rattray Lillie, a well-known and much-publicized Eugenics advocate (American science was rife with eugenics theories during this period), who was of course firmly convinced that such goals were beyond the reach of the "genetically inferior."

Young ultimately succeeded in 1940, and rejoined her former colleagues at Woods Hole (some of whom had helped to get her back on her feet). After an interval where she published two more papers on the behavior patterns of paramecium, she then taught at a number of schools throughout the 1950s, to include North Carolina College and Shaw University --the latter at which she became the Biology Department Chair. She also became actively involved in the labor movement during these years, and was no stranger to the inherent prejudices operating against Black women in the South; one notorious incident on July 5, 1946, saw Young taking a bus through Nashville, North Carolina to meet with tobacco workers on behalf of the American Federation of Labor. The bus driver called the police when Young refused to give up her seat for a white man, and she spent several nights in the county jail: a local group of Black women publicly advocated for her and eventually paid the $200 bail for her release. In 1956 Young was elected secretary of the Durham, NC chapter of the NAACP, another action which was met with scorn by much of the scientific community and its unspoken code of "politics of respectability." Unfortunately her mother's death, financial difficulties, failing eyesight (a possible consequence of her prolonged work with ultraviolet light), and relentless pressure and expectations, led to severe depression and she ultimately self-admitted to an asylum for a time. She returned to teaching in 1962 at Jackson State University, but died in 1964.

Young's legacy, much like Parker's, lay mostly forgotten until very recently (likely in part due to a pattern of posthumous blacklisting). But as of late there has been a particular resurgence of interest in her publications and her contributions to the field: https://oceanconservancy.org/blog/2017/11/29/little-known-life-first-african-american-female-zoologist/

"The Action of Ultra-Violet Rays on Arbacia Egg Protoplasm:" Physiological Zoology, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Jul., 1930) - indexed at https://www.jstor.org/stable/30151104?seq=1

"Indirect Effects of Radiation on Sea Urchin Eggs:" The Biological Bulletin, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Oct., 1935) - indexed at https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.2307/1537426?mobileUi=0

Next page - Lesson 122: Maria Stewart

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