Dr. Roger Arliner Young was the first Black woman to earn a doctorate in zoology. As a pioneer in marine biology, she was ahead of her time, excelling in scientific research while facing racism, sexism and health issues.
Education and Career
Dr. Young lived in the first half of the 20th century, an era when racism and sexism were overt and widespread. She excelled in research, but in the classroom, she was a mediocre student. According to Encyclopedia.com, Young studied at Howard University, where she earned Bs and Cs and took seven years to graduate.
She originally planned to study music but then took her first science course, general zoology. Dr. Ernest Everett Just, a prominent Black biologist, taught the course. He was the head of the Howard University biology department and well-known in the field. Young only earned a C grade in the class, but Just saw her potential and convinced her to pursue science.
After graduation, she taught zoology at Howard University and then went to the University of Chicago to pursue a master’s of science degree in zoology. According to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, while in graduate school, she was invited into Sigma Xi, an honor society for research scientists like Albert Einstein.
She spent her summers working with Just at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Based on this research, she published her first scientific paper, “On the Excretory Apparatus in the Paramecium,” in the September 1924 issue of Science — a competitive, multidisciplinary scientific journal.
This achievement made Dr. Roger Arliner Young the first Black woman to research and publish professionally in her field, according to Encyclopedia.com. In subsequent years, she published additional studies on the effects of direct and indirect radiation on sea urchin eggs.
Dr. Just was pivotal in launching her career. He nurtured her interest in zoology, and they worked together for many years. He entrusted her with serving as the interim head of the department while he traveled internationally.
Trials and Tribulations
She returned to the University of Chicago for her doctorate studies under biologist Dr. Frank Lillie. Despite her obvious aptitude for field research, she failed the Ph.D. qualifying exam. According to Encyclopedia.com, the relationship between Young and Just deteriorated after her Ph.D. failure. In 1936, she was fired from Howard.
She alluded that the distractions of sharing a workload with Just eventually effected her career. According to Encyclopedia.com, Young wrote in a letter to Lillie that her failure was due to “responsibilities that were not wholly mine but were not shared, and the weight of it has simply worn me out.”
She persisted with her scientific pursuits and eventually completed her doctorate in zoology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1940. She taught at the North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University), Shaw University, Jackson State College and several other colleges in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
In addition to scientific accomplishments, she found time for social advocacy. She joined the NAACP in 1944, worked for the Tobacco Workers International Union and helped register voters.
As if the overt racism and sexism of her era weren’t enough, Young also faced personal challenges, including physical and mental health issues, possibly related to her work with radiation.
She spent much of her life caring for her ill mother. Young had developed mental illness throughout the years, and when her mother died in 1953, her mental health suffered. She lost her teaching positions and taught kindergarten part-time to make ends meet.
According to UMKC, Young was living in poverty with failing mental and physical health. She checked into the Mississippi State Mental Asylum for treatment and was discharged in late 1962. She held a few temporary teaching positions and died in 1964. Throughout her life, Young broke barriers and faced incredible challenges. Like other scientific geniuses such as Alice Ball and Nikola Tesla who suffered from their work, her legacy is strong and lasting.