Dr. Roger Arliner Young was the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D in zoology. Dr. Young’s path to her degree and career was unconventional, but with the help of a caring mentor she would find success.
Young was born in 1889 and grew up in Clifton Forge, Va. Her mother was ill, so much of Young’s life was centered around caring for her. Young didn’t enter Howard University until 1916 when she was 27 years old. She intended to study music but struggled mightily. But a biology professor, Ernest Everett Just, saw promise in Young and took her under his wing.
With Just’s guidance, Young earned her undergraduate degree in 1923 and went on to obtain a master’s from the University of Chicago in 1926. While at Chicago, Young was selected to join the scientific research society, Sigma Xi. She worked as an assistant professor alongside Just at Howard from 1923 until 1935 during summer breaks.
In the summers, Young and Just worked at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. starting in 1927. The pair studied the fertilization process of marine organisms and the hydration and dehydration of living cells. In 1929. Young became the interim head of zoology at Howard while Just was away in Europe seeking money for grants to continue his research.
According to one account, Young and Just had a secret romance that soured and spilled out into their professional career which may have inspired her to leave Howard. She entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1937 and obtained her Ph.D three years later.
Young then began teaching at several universities, including North Carolina Central University and Shaw University, among others. Her eyes were permanently damaged due to the use of ultraviolet rays during experiments, and she retired from teaching in 1959 due to reported mental health issues.
The pioneering zoologist never married and died in November 1964 in New Orleans.
(Photo: Arizona State University archives)