Cobb, W. Montague 1904–1990
W. Montague Cobb 1904–1990
Physical anthropologist, anatomist, activist
W. Montague Cobb was a great American scholar: a medical doctor trained in anatomy and the first black American Ph.D. in physical anthropology. As a scientist, he refuted the myths of physical and mental differences between the races. In his positions as chair of the anatomy department at Howard University’s College of Medicine and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he fought for racial integration of health care and medical education, becoming a major figure in the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century. Cobb was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the establishment of Medicare in 1965. At Howard he built one of the world’s foremost collections of human skeletons for the study of comparative anatomy and he introduced creative new teaching methods. In addition he is recognized as the first major historian of American blacks in medicine.
William Montague Cobb, known as “Monty,” was born into a segregated black community in Washington, D.C., on October 12, 1904. His mother, Alexzine E. Montague Cobb, was from an old Massachusetts family of black and Native American heritage. His father, William Elmer Cobb, had moved to Washington from Selma, Alabama, in 1899 to work for the Government Printing Office. Later he established his own printing business within the black community.
Even before he could read, Monty Cobb was fascinated with the human racial types depicted in one of his grandfather’s books. But by the time he entered racially-segregated Patterson Elementary School, Cobb had learned that human variation, rather than something to celebrate, was used to oppress people. He attended Dunbar High School where many of the teachers had advanced degrees, since few colleges at the time would hire black instructors. As a result Dunbar was probably the best black high school in the country and, according to Cobb, possibly the best secondary school in the world. Its graduates entered the finest black colleges and other schools that admitted blacks. In addition to academics, Cobb studied violin and he taught himself boxing to deal with neighborhood conflicts. Impressed by the good works and social status of physicians, he decided to become a medical doctor.
Graduating from Dunbar in 1921, Cobb entered Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he received a classical education in languages, literature, philosophy, history, and the arts, as well as in the sciences. He also was a championship cross-country runner and boxer. At graduation in 1925, Cobb was awarded the Blodgett Scholarship for proficiency in biology. This enabled him to study embryology at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, with Ernest Everett Just of Howard University. As Cobb observed the fertilization and development of various marine species under the microscope, he learned to make the meticulous notes and drawings that would be a hallmark of his scientific career.
Cobb enrolled in Howard’s medical school after his time at Woods Hole and to earn money for tuition,
At a Glance…
Born William Montague Cobb on October 12, 1904, in Washington, DC; died on November 20, 1990, in Washington, DC; son of Alexzine E. Montague Cobb and William Elmer Cobb; married: Hilda B. Smith, 1929 (died 1976); children: Carolyn Cobb Wilkinson, Hilda Amelia Cobb Gray. Education: Amherst College, BA, 1925; Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, certificate in embryology, 1925; Howard University, MD, 1929; Western Reserve University, PhD, 1932.
Career: Freedmen’s Hospital, Washington, D.C., intern, 1929-30; Howard Univ, instructor embryology, 1928-29, assistant professor anatomy, 1932-34, associate prof, 1934-42, prof, 1942-69, department head, 1947-69, distinguished prof, 1969-73, emeritus prof, 1973-1990; Western Reserve Univ, fellow anatomy, 1933-39, Rosenwald fellow, 1941-42, assoc anatomy, 1942-44; visiting prof anatomy: Stanford Univ, 1972, Univ of MD, 1974, Univ of WA, 1978, WV Univ, 1980, Med Coll of Wl, 1982; Univ of AR Meds ScisCtr, distinguished university prof, 1979; Harvard Univ, visiting prof orthopedic surgery, 1981.
Selected memberships: AAPA, assoc editor 1944-48, vice pres, 1948-50,1954-56, pres, 1957-59; American Heart Association, director; Anthropological Society of Washington, vice pres, 1941-47, board of managers 1944-48, pres, 1949-51; National Medical Assn, Council of Medical Education and Hospitals, chair, 1948-52, 1953-63, editor, 1949-77, natl pres, 1964-65, emeritus editor, 1978-90; NAACP, director, 1949-1982, Natl Medical Committee chair, 1950-52, National Health Committee chair, 1953-77; pres, 1976-80.
Selected awards: Amherst College, Blodgett Scholarship, 1925, ScD 1955; National Medical Assn, Distinguished Service Medal, 1955; US Navy, Distinguished Public Service Award, 1978; Amer. Assn of Anatomists, Henry Gray Award, 1980; Distinguished Service Award, Amer. Medical Assn, 1991; numerous honorary doctorates.
Cobb worked as a waiter on a Great Lakes steamship, where jobs were assigned on the basis of race and ethnicity. Later he joined a grain harvester crew on the Saskatchewan frontier. Cobb earned his M.D. from Howard in 1929, working as an embryology instructor during his final year of study. He completed an internship at Freedmen’s Hospital (now Howard University Hospital), passed his state board examinations, and prepared to enter private practice in Washington. That same year he married Hilda B. Smith.
Although Howard’s student body was black, the medical school was dominated by part-time white faculty. The university’s first black president, Mordecai Johnson, was determined to hire black faculty, but there were very few blacks with doctorates in medical fields. Thus Numa P. G. Adams, dean of the medical school, decided to arrange further training for Howard’s own graduates. Adams had fostered Cobb’s interest in physical anthropology and Cobb was excited by the prospect of an academic career, although at first it appeared that no graduate school would accept a black student. In the end Cobb attended Western Reserve (now Case Western) University in Cleveland, on a fellowship from the General Education Board. There he trained in gross anatomy and physical anthropology with Thomas Wingate Todd. At a time when many anthropological studies focused on uncovering purported physical and mental differences among racial and socioeconomic groups, Todd was demonstrating that there were no racial differences in brain development.
When Cobb entered graduate school in 1929, physical anthropology, or bioanthropology, was maturing into a discipline separate from anatomy. In an interview with his biographers Rankin-Hill and Blakey, Cobb referred to his graduate experience as “the two most rewarding and exciting years of my life.” Working in the Hamann Museum, an interdisciplinary laboratory, he majored in physical anthropology, with minors in neuroanatomy and dental anatomy, and he served an apprenticeship in gross anatomy. Cobb’s dissertation was a massive survey of anthropological materials and the methods of processing, documenting, and preserving them. He chose this work with the goal of establishing an anatomy and physical anthropology laboratory at Howard. Much of his dissertation, “Human Archives,” was published in 1933 in the new “American Journal of Physical Anthropology.”
After earning his Ph.D. in 1932, Cobb returned to Howard as an assistant professor of anatomy and began building his laboratory. Each summer he returned to Cleveland to use the Hamann-Todd collection to study craniofacial union, the area of the skull where the cerebral cranium or braincase joins the face and jaw. After completing his study of more than 3,300 human and other mammalian skulls in Cleveland, he studied the 1,500 skulls in the collections at Washington University in St. Louis. Craniofacial growth and development is still an important research area in physical anthropology and Cobb’s morphological and functional studies of development remain among the most comprehensive on the subject. Perhaps his most important finding was that suture closure in the craniofacial union is not a reliable method of estimating age. He reported on this work at meetings of the International Gerontological Congresses in London and Merano, Italy. Cobb considered these research papers to be among his best and they established his reputation as an anatomist.
Cobb also began surveying human skeletal collections at the U.S. National Museum (now the Smithsonian Institution) under the supervision of Ales Hrdlicka. Although Hrdlicka, the leading American physical anthropologist of the day, believed in the intellectual superiority of men over women and “native” white Americans over blacks and white immigrants, he accepted Cobb as possessing the vitality of a “hybrid.”
The belief that blacks were physically superior as sprinters and broad jumpers had become commonplace, particularly after Jesse Owens’ triumph in the Olympics. Utilizing the methods of physical anthropology, including an examination of Owens himself, Cobb demonstrated that there were no anatomical differences between black and Caucasian athletes. His 1936 study, “Race and Runners,” remains one of his best-known works.
In 1939 Cobb published a study of the biology and demographics of black Americans. Describing them as a population of Afro-Euro-Indian interbreeding hybrids, he argued that slavery, by selecting for the strongest and most adaptable, had enhanced their physical strength and mental abilities. Although he suggested that the “special aptitudes” of blacks for music and dance were biologically determined, he presented socioeconomic and demographic reasons for high fertility rates among black Americans. Most significantly, he demonstrated that racism, segregation, and poverty harmed not just the black community, but society as a whole.
Until the early 1950s Cobb was the only black American with a Ph.D. in physical anthropology. As such, his ideas came to represent the black perspective in that science. However, he was careful to also pursue research interests that had nothing to do with race. Cobb’s anatomical research included skeletal aging, comparative dental anatomy, and cadaver demography. He established an advanced anthropology course at Howard and helped to integrate anthropology into other subject areas. He also helped create the standard color representation of heart anatomy.
Cobb’s research, which stressed human diversity while demonstrating the physical and intellectual equality of the races, led him to political action. He was a member of numerous anthropological, medical, and civil rights organizations, regularly attending meetings and holding leadership positions. He served two terms as president of the Medico-Chirurgical Society of the District of Columbia, the oldest black medical society in the country, and founded its Bulletin, which he edited for 45 years. He often published in the Journal of the National Medical Association, serving as its editor from 1949 to 1977 and as editor emeritus until his death.
Cobb served terms as president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) and vice-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He was instrumental in the adoption of anti-segregation policies for meetings of the AAAS and the American Association of Anatomists. Cobb was a board member of the NAACP for 31 years and served as its president from 1976 until 1982.
One of the first biomedical anthropologists, Cobb applied anthropology to issues of clinical medicine and public health. He viewed racial integration both as an aspect of applied physical anthropology and as a requirement for alleviating the nation’s health problems. Cobb identified the exclusion of black patients and medical staff from hospitals and the exclusion of blacks from medical schools and professional organizations, as well as racial discrimination in prepaid health plans, as major contributors to the problems of black health care. He succeeded in opening the D.C. General Hospital and the Medical Society of the District of Columbia to black physicians.
To further address these issues, Cobb co-founded the Imhotep National Conference on Hospital Integration, sponsored by the National Medical Association’s Council on Medical Education and Hospitals, the NAACP’s National Health Committee, and the Medico-Chirurgical Society of the District of Columbia. Named for the early Egyptian physician Imhotep, the conference met annually between 1957 and 1963 to support surveys, publications, and other conferences on the health status of American blacks and to lobby for the passage of legislation, including national health insurance and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Testifying before congress on the Medicare Bill of 1965, Cobb was the only representative of a medical association to endorse the legislation.
Cobb spent his entire professional career at Howard University College of Medicine. He was promoted to associate professor in 1934 and professor in 1942, becoming chairman of the anatomy department in 1947. Although he was able to build a well-equipped laboratory, he lacked research funds and so devoted himself to teaching. Over the course of his career, Cobb taught anatomy to more than 6,000 medical and dental students. He produced his own slides and films for his courses, sometimes recited poetry to illustrate a point, and played the violin during dissections to relax the students. His published teaching methods integrated anatomy with art, history, archeology, and preventative and clinical medicine.
However, in 1969 Cobb, as a symbol of the university establishment, became the target of student protests. Medical students boycotted his classes, complaining that his course was outdated and didn’t prepare them for board exams. Cobb was forced to resign his chairmanship but was appointed the university’s first distinguished professor, a position he held until his retirement as an emeritus professor in 1973. In the following years Cobb served as a visiting professor at various universities. In 1977 he made his acting debut at the Kennedy Center in Washington, playing the role of W. E. B. DuBois in a production directed by his daughter.
Between 1932 and 1969 Cobb built the W. Montague Cobb Human Skeletal Collection, with anatomical, medical, and demographic records of 987 individuals and more than 700 preserved and documented skeletons. It is a unique record of the development and pathology of Washington, D.C.’s poorest residents. In 1992 the Cobb Collection became part of the reestablished Cobb Biological Anthropology Laboratory within the Department of Sociology and Anthropology of Howard’s College of Arts and Sciences. Its research now focuses on the remains from the recently discovered New York City African Burial Grounds.
Cobb was the author of more than 1,100 publications on a wide variety of topics. In addition to research papers in physical anthropology, he wrote on the applications of physical anthropology and anatomy to human nature, social inequality, civil rights, and education, in the form of editorials, pamphlets, book reviews, and monographs. Some of Cobb’s later writings reflected his belief that anthropology had become far too specialized and that anthropologists lacked a sufficiently-broad perspective. He also wrote more than 200 biographies of black doctors. Cobb’s writings appeared in black journals as well as in the popular black press. Some of his work was self-published and, in the early years, he made use of his father’s print shop.
Cobb was awarded more than 100 honors and citations during the course of his life, including the American Association of Anatomists’ highest award—the Henry Gray Award for outstanding contributions to anatomy. He was the recipient of numerous honorary degrees. The year after his death, Cobb was given the Distinguished Service Award for meritorious service in the science and art of medicine by the American Medical Association.
Cobb’s scientific legacy was a more humane physical anthropology that emphasized human biological diversity and social and historical rather than evolutionary factors. He debunked the concept of pure races and demonstrated human equality by recognizing the diversity and the positive and negative aspects of various human cultures. Cobb promoted the integration of art, literature, history, and philosophy with physical anthropology and anatomy.
W. Montague Cobb died of heart ailments and pneumonia on November 20, 1990, in a Washington hospital. He was survived by his two daughters, Carolyn Cobb Wilkinson and Hilda Amelia Cobb Gray, and four grandchildren. His wife Hilda, a Washington schoolteacher for more than 40 years, had died in 1976 after 47 years of marriage. Transcripts of interviews with Cobb and many of his papers are archived at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center of Howard University. Cobb told his biographers that he was always “marching to the beat of a different drummer.”
“Skeleton,” in Cowdry’s Problems of Aging, ed. A. I. Lansing, Williams and Wilkins, 1952.
“Human Materials in American Institutions Available for Anthropological Study,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 1933.
“Race and Runners,” Journal of Health and Physical Education, 1936.
“The Negro as a Biological Element in the American Population,” Journal of Negro Education, 1939.
“The Cranio-Facial Union in Man,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 1940.
“Physical Anthropology of the American Negro,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 1942.
“The Cranio-Facial Union and the Maxillary Tuber in Mammals,” American Journal of Anatomy, 1943.
“The Artistic Canons in the Teaching of Anatomy,” Journal of the National Medical Association, 1944.
“Medical Care and the Plight of the Negro in Medicine,” Crisis, 1947.
“Progress and Portents for the Negro in Medicine,” Crisis, 1948.
“The National Health Program of the N.A.A.C.P.,” Journal of the National Medical Association, 1953.
“Integration in Medicine: A National Need,” Journal of the National Medical Association, 1957.
“Tuskegee Syphilis Study,” Journal of the National Medical Association, 1973.
“Human Rights—A New Fight in Cultural Evolution,” Crisis, 1978.
“Love is the Greatest Power—The Struggle for Survival Today,” Crisis, 1980.
“The Black American in Medicine,” Journal of the National Medical Association, 1981.
“The Door That Opened Wide,” Journal of the National Medical Association, 1987.
“Human Variation: Informing the Public,” Journal of the National Medical Association, 1988.
“Have We Sighted Beulah Land?” Journal of the National Medical Association, 1990.
“Lest We Forget,” Journal of the National Medical Association, 1991.
“Medical Progress and African Americans,” American Journal of Public Health, 2002.
Rankin-Hill, Lesley M. and Michael L. Blakey, ed. by Ira E. Harrison and Faye V. Harrison, African-American Pioneers in Anthropology, University of Illinois Press, 1999, pp. 101-136.
American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 1993, pp. 545-548.
American Journal of Public Health, February 2002, p. 193.
Annals of Internal Medicine, June 1, 1997, pp. 898-906.
Jet, December 10, 1990, p. 5.
Journal of Sport History, Spring 1998, pp. 119-151.
Journal of the American Medical Association, April 7, 1989, p. 1976.
New Directions, April 1988, pp. 6-17.
Cobb, W. Montague
Cobb, W. Montague
October 12, 1904
November 20, 1990
William Montague Cobb, a physician, was born in Washington, D.C., the son of William Elmer and Alexzine Montague Cobb. A graduate of Dunbar High School (1921), he pursued a liberal-arts program at Amherst College and earned an A.B. there in 1925. Cobb's special talent for science earned him the Blodgett Scholarship for work at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where he studied embryology in the summer of 1925. He entered Howard University Medical College that fall, earning an M.D. in 1929.
During his final year at Howard, Cobb taught embryology to medical students. This was the start of a lifelong career in teaching and research. Following a year's internship at Freedmen's Hospital, he enrolled in the doctoral program at Western Reserve University and was awarded a Ph.D. in anatomy and physical anthropology in 1932.
Cobb taught anatomy at Howard University for forty-one years. Starting as an assistant professor in 1932, he attained the rank of full professor in 1942. He served as chairman of the Department of Anatomy from 1947 to 1969. In 1969 he became the first to hold a distinguished professorship at Howard. Following his official retirement in 1973, he served as visiting professor at several institutions, including Stanford University, the University of Maryland, and Harvard University.
Cobb's research interests were wide-ranging. He contributed the chapter on the skeleton to the third edition (1952) of E. V. Cowdry's Problems of Aging: Biological and Medical Aspects. Other work of his was cited in Gray's Anatomy, Sir Henry Morris's Human Anatomy, and Cunningham's Manual of Practical Anatomy. He is said to have been the first black scientist cited in all three of these standard medical texts. Cobb's work on the "physical anthropology of the American Negro," published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology and other periodicals, was recognized as authoritative.
Along with Julian H. Lewis, Cobb pioneered efforts to counteract the myths that had evolved among scientists concerning the biological inferiority of black people. In all, he published over six hundred articles in professional journals. His prominence brought him terms as president of the Anthropological Society of Washington (1949–1951) and of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (1958–1960), at a time when it was almost unheard of for an African American to hold such posts within predominantly white organizations.
Cobb is perhaps best remembered, both within the medical community and beyond, for his civil rights activities. During the 1940s he represented the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) before the U.S. Senate in testimony supportive of a national health-insurance program. Under the auspices of the NAACP he prepared two seminal monographs, Medical Care and the Plight of the Negro (1947) and Progress and Portents for the Negro in Medicine (1948), which helped raise public awareness of how discriminatory practices had adversely influenced the access of blacks to health-care services and professional opportunities. Cobb served as NAACP president from 1976 to 1982.
In his capacity as president (1945–1947, 1951–1954) of the all-black Medico-Chirurgical Society of the District of Columbia, Cobb led two important campaigns: the racial integration of Gallinger Hospital (later, D.C. General Hospital) in 1948 and the admission, in 1952, of black physicians to membership in the all-white Medical Society of the District of Columbia. He also served a term as president of the National Medical Association in 1964. It was in his role, however, as editor of the Journal of the National Medical Association (1949–1977) that he found his primary forum, both for discussing contemporary issues of health-care access and for portraying the rich historical heritage to which blacks—going back beyond colonial America to prehistoric times—can lay claim.
Cobb, W. Montague. The First Negro Medical Society: A History of the Medico-Chirurgical Society of the District of Columbia. Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1939.
Lawlah, John W. "The President-Elect." Journal of the National Medical Association 55 (November 1963): 551–554.
kenneth r. manning (1996)