Zoologists are scientists who study animals, in either the wild or in a lab, observing them in the laboratory and in their natural habitat. They study the origin and development of species as well as their habits, behaviors and interactions. They also research the development of animal diseases and how these diseases affect the quality of life for each species of animal. Their work also includes analytical research and experimental laboratory work.

When the word zoologist is stated, many people think of anyone but  a Black woman.

But, zoologists come in many racial and ethnic groups, as well as both genders.

One such zoologist was Roger Arliner Young.

During a time when many professions were closed to Black Americans, Ms. Young blazed a path into a field which even today still gives many people the image of Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom” Marlin Perkins. Ms. Young fought the skepticism, racism and sexism of many doubters. Here is her story.


Roger Arliner Young (b. 1889 – d. November 9, 1964). zoologist and researcher. In a profession notoriously inhospitable to Black Americans, the life and career of the zoologist Roger Arliner Young showed both the achievement of professional respect and the severe obstacles Black women faced as scientific researchers and teachers.

Ms. Young attended the University of Pennsylvania and received her PhD in Zoology in 1940, one of a handful of advanced degrees awarded to Black women in the sciences before that decade. Despite financial worries, academic pressures, and little institutional stability, Ms. Young participated as a researcher at the world-renowned Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and was published in the prestigious journal Science in 1924.

Born in Clifton Forge, Virginia, Ms. Young grew up in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania, and attended public schools there. She first went to Howard University in 1916 to study music and took her first zoology class in 1921. Here teacher for this class,  Dr. Ernest Everett Just, an established Black biologist, significantly influenced the rest of her life.

The “Black Apollo of science”, Dr. Just started his teaching career at Howard as an English instructor. He made a dramatic switch to the sciences when Howard’s president Wilbur Patterson Thirkeld persuaded him to obtain a graduate degree in zoology and build Howard’s research capabilities. This commitment meant that Howard University could provide the limited institutional support necessary for the education of scientific researchers.

Dr. Just recruited Ms Young, and she prospered as a student and researcher under his tutelage. In 1923 she graduated with a degree in Zoology from Howard and began teaching as an instructor there. Unable to obtain financial assistance, Ms. Young saved from her small salary and entered the graduate program at the University of Chicago as a part-time student in 1924. Over three summers she completed her classes, earning her degree in 1926. Her impressive academic scores led to her induction into Sigma Xi, the national science honors society, an honor not given to master’s students. During her masters work and after, Ms. Young continued her work with Just.

Ms. Young published her work on the marine organism Paramecium entitled “On the Excretory Apparatus in Paramecium”. It was published by the journal Science on September 12, 1924. She did the first of many summer research stints at the Marine Biological Laboratory, assisting Dr. Just. Ms. Young took on significant  administrative and teaching responsibilities at Howard University for several years starting in 1929 while Dr. Just conducted research in Europe. Under pressure from university administrators who wished to upgrade the credentials of faculty and with the encouragement of Dr. Just, Ms. Young received support from the General Education Board and began doctoral work at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1929.

Ms. Young’s performance in classes was solid, if not as exemplary as her master’s work. Burdened with caring for her invalid mother, worried about her financial circumstances, and with Dr. Just out of the country, Ms. Young failed her comprehensive examinations in January 1930. She disappeared from Chicago for several months, reappearing to take some classes in the spring. When these did not go well, Ms. Young returned to teach at Howard. Over the next several years, Ms. Young saw her relationship with Dr. Just cool, even as she continued to do research at the Marine Biological Laboratory and shouldered a heavy a teaching load at Howard. Dr. Just began trying to ease Ms. Young out at Howard in 1933, and they had a final confrontation in 1935, resulting in Ms. Young’s dismissal in 1936.

At possibly one of her most trying hours, Ms. Young regrouped and took the opportunity to make a new start for herself at the University of Pennsylvania under the guidance of L. V. Heilbrunn. She published four research articles between 1935 and 1938, continuing her work on sea urchin eggs (1938) and starting research on the embryological development of the annelid (1939). Ms. Young became the first Black woman to obtain a PhD in Zoology in 1940, a notable accomplishment, especially for a Black woman facing the double burden of sexism and racism.

Over the next twenty years, Ms. Young struggled professionally and personally. She began her teaching career at the North carolina College for Negroes in Durham. She left the institution to become head of the Biology Department at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Financial problems plagued Ms. Young, who was still supporting her mother and increasingly worried about her own retirement. Ms. Young found her teaching responsibilities increasingly difficult. She left Shaw University in 1947 and then held appointments at four different institutions–North Carolina College again, Paul Quinn College in Texas,  Jackson State College in Mississippi, and Southern University in Louisiana.

Suffering from depression, she sought treatment at the Mississippi State mental Asylum in the late 1950s, leaving that institution in 1962.

She received a nine-month teaching appointment at Southern University, where she lived out her life.


“Roger Arliner Young”, by Amy M. Hay, Black Women in America.

“Roger Arliner Young (1889 – 1964)”, by Evelyn M. Hammonds. In Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, edited by Darlene Clark Hine, et. al. Oxford University Press, 2005.

“Roger Arliner Young”, by Kenneth Manning, Sage, A Scholarly Journal on Black Women 6, no. 2 (Fall 1989): 3-7.

“Young, Roger Arliner (1889 – 1964).: In Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives From Ancient Times to the Mid-Twentieth Century, edited by Marilyn Ogilvie and Joy Harvey. New York: Routledge, 2000.


(with L.V. Heilbrunn) “Indirect Effects of Radiation on Sea Urchin Eggs.” Biological Bulletin, 1935.

“On the Excretory Apparatus in Paramecium.” Science, September 12, 1924.

1 Comment

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  1. She was such an inspiration but little is known of her contribution.

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