Many leading biologists of the early twentieth century studied at the Johns Hopkins University, founded in 1876. William Keith Brooks led studies of zoology, with Henry Newell Martin teaching physiology. The students, including luminaries such as Wilson, Edwin Grant Conklin, Thomas Hunt Morgan, and Ross Granville Harrison, also played leading roles during the summers at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, established the new Journal of Experimental Zoology, and went on to set up successful experimental biology programs at Princeton, Columbia, and Yale, respectively. The Johns Hopkins University PhD program attracted students in a new generation who sought to become professional biologists, a career that was just becoming a viable option in the late nineteenth century.
Wilson attended Johns Hopkins on a fellowship, and was one of the first graduate students. The university had only opened two years before his arrival in 1878. While a graduate student, Wilson began his study of invertebrate embryology, with a close focus on cell division.