Roger Arliner Young, the first African-American woman to hold a PhD in Zoology despite major life setbacks

Stephen Nartey November 11, 2022
Credit: Marine Biological Laboratory Archives

She was shattered, broken and confused when it became apparent her dream of attaining a Ph.D. was a pipedream after she failed her entry exam on the first attempt. 

To make matters worse, she was fired from her post by her mentor during her trying moment. Instead of allowing herself to be overwhelmed by the misfortune, she took another leap of faith to give herself another shot at her Ph.D. dream.

That is how Roger Arliner Young became the first African-American woman to attain a doctorate in zoology, after considerable years of research and lecturing under the pressure of taking care of her sick mother. 

She had her early upbringing in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania. She applied to study at Howard University in 1916, according to sdsc.edu

Prominent Black biologist and head of the zoology department at Howard University Ernest Everett Just offered Young her first opportunity to study science. Though Young had poor grades, he decided to mentor her because he sensed greatness in her. Young was able to complete her bachelor’s degree in 1923. 

She excelled in her academics under the mentorship of the Black biologist. There are arguments that Just picked Young to mentor because men were susceptible to abandoning the classroom to chase lucrative careers in medicine. Just was responsible for sourcing funding for Young to pursue graduate school.

She got admission to the University of Chicago as a part-time student in 1924. She recorded impressive grades thereafter and was asked to sign up for Sigma Xi, an unusual honor for a master’s student.

She published her first article “On the Excretory Apparatus in Paramecium” in 1924 in the Science. Young graduated with a master’s degree in 1926. 

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

She was involved in Just’s research on the fertilization process in marine organisms. Young was mainly focused on the processes of hydration and dehydration in living cells. Just at one point described her as a real genius in zoology. 

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

But Young’s misfortune began when she returned to Chicago to start her doctoral program under the tutelage of embryologist Frank Lillie. Young failed her entry exam in 1930. 

This was a hard blow to her, especially at a time her mother was seriously ill. She shut herself away from her friends and family with no clue of her whereabouts. 

Her supervisor in Chicago, Lillie, became alarmed and alerted the president of Howard about her mental condition. She was recalled to Howard University to teach and continue work at the Woods Hole in the summers. But, she was fired by Just in 1936 for missing her classes and mistreating lab equipment. 

She saw that as an opportunity to prove herself and applied to the University of Pennsylvania to commence a doctorate under L.V. Heilbrunn in 1937. She earned her Ph.D. in 1940.

She took an assistant professorship at the North Carolina College for Negroes in Raleigh. 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.

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