A Zoology Genius
Roger Arliner Young’s life began and ended in poverty, but in between she was a groundbreaking research scientist and professor. I wish I could say she enjoyed a long, happy career — and had she been a white man she surely would have — but her life and work were marred by racism and sexism.
Roger was born in Clifton Forge, Virginia in 1899, and her family soon moved to Pennsylvania. Her father was a coal miner and her mother a housekeeper who had become disabled. Most of their money went to caring for her mother. Roger continued to be her mother’s sole financial provider throughout her life.
Roger enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1916 to study music. It wasn’t until 1921 that she took her first science course: general zoology. She couldn’t get enough. Next came a class in vertebrate and invertebrate embryology. Roger didn’t have the best grades, but Ernest Everett Just, head of the zoology department, saw something promising in Young beyond what tests could measure. She planned to go into social services after graduating in 1923, but Ernest offered her a job as his assistant professor and research assistant. He needed her help to shoulder his university duties so he could focus on his own research.
Roger also entered the University of Chicago to study for a master’s degree. She was unable to obtain funding, even with Ernest’s help, so she had to exhaust all of her savings on school. Before she’d even completed her master’s, she became the first Black woman to research and professionally publish in her field. Her article, “On the excretory apparatus in Paramecium,” was published in the prestigious journal Science. She reported that the various parts of the Paramecia caudatum’s digestive system formed a continuous structure.
Roger was invited to join the elite scientific research honors society Sigma Xi. For a grad student, this was almost unheard of.
In 1927, Ernest asked Roger to start joining him on his summer research sojourns to the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Her research focused on the fertilization processes of marine organisms, how paramecium control their salt concentrations, and hydration and dehydration of living cells. She also studied the effect of ultraviolet light on developmental physiology, looking at how direct and indirect radiation affected sea urchin eggs. She spent one summer at Woods Hole working with recent college graduate Rachel Carson.
Ernest called Roger a “real genius in zoology.”
Unfortunately, Ernest liked to take credit for her genius. Roger’s contributions to the research were never acknowledged in the papers Ernest published on them. In addition, Roger sustained permanent eye damage from the ultraviolet rays she used in Ernest’s research.
In 1929, Roger took on more than she could handle. She was named interim department head of Howard’s zoology department while Ernest was abroad. She also returned to the University of Chicago to embark on a doctorate degree. The pressure Roger felt to complete her PhD and return to Howard was immense. That pressure prompted her to sit for her qualifying exams a mere three months after her studies began. Of course, she failed.
After taking a short break from science, Roger returned to the rhythm of Howard University school years and Woods Hole summers. But things never really returned to what they once were. Ernest had turned cold. Perhaps he saw her failing out of school as giving Black scientists a bad name. Perhaps he worried she would give Howard a bad name. One theory of his change in attitude is that there was a rumor of romance between them that he needed to squash. Whatever the cause, Ernest was now scheduling her to teach at odd times, neglecting to provide feedback on her research, and blocking her access to the University’s scientific equipment. He regularly sent her menacing memos painting her as a threat to the school’s research and teaching.
“You seem to be making a deliberate effort to keep me from doing any research work while in residence in your department,” Roger wrote to Ernest in May 1935. “This type of thing is so averse to a true scientific or real university spirit that for a long time I have tried not to believe that it is the correct expression of your sincere attitude.”
In 1936, Ernest fired her.
“The situation here is so cruel and cowardly that every spark of sentiment that I have held for Howard is cold,” Roger declared. While other people might have been devastated by such a blow, Roger saw this for what it was: an opportunity to leave a toxic, exploitative work situation and find an environment that would foster healthy advancement.
She was off to make a fresh start at the University of Pennsylvania’s zoology PhD program, which was run by a scientist she’d met at the Woods Hole marine lab. Her dissertation explored “The Indirect Effects of Roentgen Rays on Certain Marine Eggs.” In 1940, Roger became the first Black woman to receive a doctorate in zoology.
Roger was recruited to be assistant professor at North Carolina College for Negroes. Though she earned $700 a year less than she had at Howard, she found it “very much pleasanter.” Before long, she was chosen to head the biology department at Shaw University in Raleigh.
It was in North Carolina that she dove head-first into civil rights activism and labor organizing, prompted by the 1944 murder of Private Booker T. Spicely, a Black man who was shot by a white bus driver for refusing to move to the back of the bus. Roger traveled the state to register voters, joined the NAACP and began working for the Tobacco Workers International Union (TWIU). She was elected secretary of the Durham chapter of the NAACP. In 1946, Roger herself was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man and move to the back of the bus.
But her organizing got her blacklisted by the powerful men of Durham’s Black Wall Street. What’s more, she became very vocal about how she felt the leadership of both the NAACP and the TWIU was undemocratic. These challenges got her kicked out of the unions. Working in North Carolina was no longer an option.
She proceeded to bounce from teaching position to teaching position throughout the south: Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana. Mental and physical health problems plagued her, but she lacked the funds for treatment.
“What can I do? I’ve driven myself for 25 years,” Roger wrote to an old friend. “I have no money for medical care. No relatives and a deep fear of the institutions down here. I’ve read in the paper that they are inadequate for whites.”
In 1962, she voluntarily committed herself to the Mississippi State Mental Asylum. After being released, she found one last teaching position in New Orleans, but struggled to pay her rent on time, leading to several landlords suing her. She died in 1964. Roger was eventually recognized by a 2005 Congressional Resolution honoring her and four other Black women who “broke through many barriers to achieve greatness in science.”
While Roger serves as a great example of Black genius for young people to look up to, society has done little to correct the problems that led to her career troubles and untimely demise. The working classes classes still struggle to pay for healthcare; Black patients still suffer from medical racism. Toxic male geniuses continue to control labs across the country. Institutional racism and sexism continue to plague BIPOC women in science, often derailing their careers before they even begin.
A January 2021 article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that women of color seeking advanced chemistry degrees largely lacked the financial support and mentorship required to successfully complete their studies. Presumably, other other disciplines have similar issues. These problems must be corrected. It’s beyond time Black women be given the space and support necessary to flourish in the sciences.
“Zoologist Roger Arliner Young and the Politics of Respectability,” Black Perspectives, by Sara P. Díaz, April 25, 2017.
“How a brilliant biologist was failed by science,” BBC, by Leila McNeill, September 30, 2020.
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Pre-order my book: Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine, out March 2, 2021 from HarperCollins/Park Row Books.