Cobb, Jewell Plummer 1924–

views updated May 23 2018

Jewell Plummer Cobb 1924

Scientist, educator

Education Fueled by Love of Biology

Began Cell Biology Research

Administration Focused on Minorities and Women

Selected writings


Coming from a long line of relatives that worked in the medical and science fields, Jewell Plummer Cobb dedicated her life first to the research of cellular biology and then to the teaching of science to people of minority status. As the president of California State University-Fullerton, Cobb made advances in the opportunities to motivate minority students of all ages to study science and engineering and has been honored due to her work by numerous colleges as well as by the National Academy of Science in Washington, D.C.

Jewell Plummer Cobb was born on January 17, 1924, in Chicago, Illinois. She was the only child of Frank V. Plummer, a middle-class doctor, and Carriebel Cole Plummer, a dance instructor who worked closely with the Works Projects Administration in the 1930s. Cobbs father was one of the main inspirations in the young girls life, making it clear to her that the most important thing in life was making life better for those around you. Frank Plummer lived by this rule, setting up his first office on the corner where a streetcar had a transfer point for commuting stockyard workers. This allowed the workers, almost all of who were men and women of color, to use the transfer time to visit his office and receive medical treatment without having to take time off of work and without having to pay out transportation fees to get to a doctors office.

Education Fueled by Love of Biology

Even though Cobb faced the same segregation that all minorities faced in the 1930s and 1940s, she was privy to the advantages of a middle-class upbringing. Her family continued to move into better and better neighborhoods in the city as they became available due to white families moving out of the city and into the suburbs, allowing Cobb to attend better public schools throughout her primary schooling. She learned to read at an early age and she took advantage of her fathers large home library which contained numerous scientific journals and magazines, up to date newspapers, and a thorough collection of books that chronicled the achievements of black Americans. Her parents also owned a cottage in Idlewild, Michigan, where a number of well to do black families vacationed during the summer months.

Cobbs two passions during her youth were education and her social life at the Saint Edmunds Episcopal

At a Glance

Born on January 17, 1924, In Chicago, IL; daughter of Carriebel Cole Plummer and Frank V. Plummer; married Roy Cobb, July 4, 1954 (divorced); children: Jonathan Cobb, Education: Talladega College, BA, 1944;s New York University, MS, 1947, PhD, 1950.

Career: New York Univ., instructor, 1955-56, assistant professor, 1956-60; Hunter College, visiting lecturer, 1956-57; Sarah Lawrence College, biology professor, 1960-69; Connecticut College, zoology professor, dean, 1969-76; Rutgers Univ., Douglass College, biology professor, dean, 1976-81; California State Univ. Fullerton, president, 1981-90, president emerita, 1990-; ACCESS Center, California State Univ. Los Angeles, principal investigator, 1991; ASCEND Project, Science Technology Engineering Program (STEP) Up for Youth, 2001-.

Memberships: National Academy of Sciences, Human Resources Commission, 1974-; Educ Policy Center, New York City, board of directors; National Science Foundation, board of directors, 1974-; Travelers Insurance Co., board of directors, 1974-; 21st Century Foundation, board of directors; National Fund for Minority Engineering Students, 1978-; Californians Preventing Violence, board of directors, 1983-; First Interstate Bancorp, board of directors, 1985-; Newport Harbor Museum, board member; numerous others.

Awards: Research grant, American Cancer Society, 1969-74, 1971-73, 1974-77; Natl Academy of Science, Lifetime Achievement Award, 1993; Ronald Wilson Award, American Council on Education, 2001; 21 honorary doctorates Including: Wheaton College, 1971; Lowell Technical Institute, 1972; Pennsylvania Medical College, 1975; City College of the City Univ, of New York; St. Lawrence Univ., College of New Rochelle; Tuskegee Univ,; Fairleigh Dickinson Univ.

Addresses: OfficePresident Emerita, California State University, Fullerton, 800 North State College Blvd, Fullerton, CA, 92831.s

Church, where she made a good deal of friends and sang in the church choir. Cobb was serious about her middle and high school classes and she soon found herself interested in attending college to follow her new found love of science. During her sophomore year of high school, she had already decided on biology as her field of study and took an extra year of biology-related classes before she graduated even though they were not required. Cobb feared, however, that her high school education, no matter how extensive, might not be good enough, because during this time period it was difficult for African Americans to get good high school educations due to the gerrymandering of the school districts that prevented integration into the more prestigious high schools. Cobb overcame these hurdles, however, by studying hard to be at the top of her class and joining numerous extra-curricular activities such as the honor society. By the time she had graduated, she had already secured a place as an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan.

While the University of Michigan was known for its high level of educational excellence and its well known football team, it was not immune to the rigors of segregation. All black students, undergraduate and graduate, were housed in one dorm, and often students of minority status were not allowed to take certain classes or major in certain fields of study. By the end of her third semester at the University of Michigan, Cobb saw little hope of fully studying biology and with the urging of Hilda Davis, the dean of women at the time, Cobb got a transfer to Talladega College in Alabama. Unfortunately for Cobb, Talladega did not recognize any of the credits she had taken at the University of Michigan, so she entered Talladega with freshman status. Motivated not to fall behind, Cobb took up an accelerated program where she was able to study with private tutors and during the summer sessions and test out of many of the required classes at Talladega. Three and a half years later, in 1944, Cobb graduated from Talladega with a B.A. in biology.

Cobb intended to continue on for a graduate education in cellular biology, but again found obstacles in her way. During her last year at Talladega she had applied to New York University and had been accepted, but found it impossible to attend the college without financial aid. She applied for a teaching fellowship but was initially denied because of her race. Not willing to be turned away so easily, Cobb arrived at New York University and talked directly to the head of the fellowship department, pleading her case and promoting her excellent credentials and references. By the end of her meeting at the fellowship department, Cobb had secured herself a five-year teaching fellowship which she utilized to gain her masters degree in cell physiology in 1947 and her doctorate in the same field in 1950.

Began Cell Biology Research

Most students during this time who came out of school with a Ph.D. in cell physiology went into a medical career, but Cobb opted to work in a biology research lab at the National Cancer Institute instead due to her love of theoretical research over pathological application. She also made sure that the lab she joined focused on cellular biology, which observes the action and interaction of living cells, instead of molecular biology, which observes mainly atoms and molecules that make up cells. At the National Cancer Institute she studied the effects of chemotherapy drugs on human cells infected with cancer, producing research that is still used today in creating new and more effective tools to fight cancer.

In 1952 Cobb moved on to become the director of the Tissue Culture Laboratory at the University of Illinois where she began doing pigment cell research, particularly melanin, a brown or black pigment that colors skin. She continued this research as she entered into academia, becoming an assistant professor and researcher at New York University in 1955. Cobbs main interest in melanin was its protective properties, specifically its ability to block ultraviolet rays from damaging human skin cells. By 1960, when she moved to Sarah Lawrence College to become a professor of biology, Cobb was working mainly with melanoma, a skin tumor created by ultraviolet light that is often harmful to skin cells and can result in skin cancer. Skin cell research, however, was not the only thing that Cobb was focusing on during the 1950s. On July 4, 1954, Cobb married Roy Cobb and three years later the couple had a son, Jonathan, in 1957.

In 1967 Cobb and her husband divorced and two years later, in 1969, Cobb found herself the dean of Connecticut College as well as a professor of zoology. It was at Connecticut College that Cobb first made strides in educational administration to assist those students of minority status. She created both privately pre-dental graduate programs for minority students, programs which served as models for other colleges dealing with a lack of minority students in these fields. Cobb continued to do research in between teaching and administration work, but it was clear to her by the time that she left Connecticut College in 1976 that she was more interested in moving fully into the administrative side of teaching.

Administration Focused on Minorities and Women

Between 1976 and 1981, Cobb took up at Douglass College, a school within Rutgers University, as dean and professor of biological sciences. It was here that she continued to push for minorities in science fields, both by creating new programs and by making the community more aware of those underrepresented. She wrote a paper in 1979 entitled Filters for Women in Science, which was published in the book Expanding the Role of Women in Sciences, and reprinted in the Annals of New York Academy of Sciences. The paper created an analogy between educational systems and filters, proposing that educational systems made it difficult, if not impossible, for women to choose a career in the field of science. Much like a filter which stops anything bigger than the size of its pores, educational systems along with social systems created a mindset where women were discouraged from studying math and science and were in turn often barred from getting university tenure and equal pay if they entered these fields.

In 1981 Cobb became the president of California State University (CSU) in Fullerton, California, where she continued to push not only for minorities in science, but also for better quality education for all students. One of her most impressive acts was gaining state funding for the college to build a new engineering and computer science building as well as a new general science building. She also used the funds to build an apartment complex where students could live, converting CSU from a commuter college into a full residential college. She started the first presidents opportunity program for ethnic students at CSU, hoping to draw in those students who were underrepresented. Privately, Cobb has also funded a gerontology center on CSUs campus.

In 1990 Cobb became a trustee professor at California State College in Los Angeles, involving her in a consortium of six colleges in the Long Beach Basing which are dedicated to motivate minority students into the fields of science and mathematics. This program, funded by the National Science Foundation, is one of the many moves colleges have been making toward corporate funding and away from federal funding whose budgets get smaller every year. In 1991 Cobb signed on as a principal investigator for Southern California Science and Engineering ACCESS Center and Network, a group that looks for minority students hoping to major in the sciences and funding their education.

Cobb has continued at CSU to promote more minority students to join both the science and math programs. In this vein she has created a program where faculty members can tutor students on an individual basis in order for them to succeed in these programs. Cobb has spoken at lengths in the media about the disparity of the number of minorities in science labs and the number of minorities in sports. She hopes that through her efforts and the efforts of others, the numbers can begin to equal out and people of minority status can be prevalent in all types of professions, not just a select few. For her efforts Cobb has been presented with numerous awards including honorary doctorates from numerous universities, research grants, and awards from the American Council on Education.

Selected writings

Filters for Women in Science, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 323, 1979.

Breaking Down Barriers to Women Entering Science, 1979.

Issues and Problems: A Debate, 1979.



Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 323, 1979.

Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, Vol. 22, Gale, 2002.

Notable Black American Women, Book I, Gale, 1992.

Whos Who Among African Americans, 16th edition, Gale, 2003.


Black Issues in Higher Education, December 6, 2001.


Noted Biologist Jewel Plummer Cobb Receives 1999 Achievement in Excellence Award, California State University, (October 28, 2003).

Past and Present Leadership of The California State University, California State University, (October 28, 2003).


Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview from Notable Black American Women, Book I, on January 9, 1991, and the personal papers of Jewell Plummer Cobb, housed in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York City.

Dona L. Irvin, Jennifer M. York, and Ralph G. Zerbonia

Jewel Plummer Cobb

views updated May 11 2018

Jewel Plummer Cobb

Largely known for her work with skin pigment, or melanin, cell biologist and cell physiologist Jewel Plummer Cobb (born 1924) has encouraged women and ethnic minorities to enter the sciences. An educator and researcher, she contributed to the field of chemotherapy with her research on how drugs affected cancer cells.

Followed the Path of Science

Cobb was born in Chicago, Illinois, on January 17, 1924, and spent her childhood as an only child. She is from the third generation of the Plummer family who sought a career in medical science. Her grandfather, a freed slave, graduated from Howard University in 1898 and became a pharmacist. Her father, Frank V. Plummer, became a physician after he graduated from Cornell University, where he helped found the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. Her mother, Carriebel (Cole) Plummer, taught dance and was a physical education teacher.

Becoming a noted cell biologist was a difficult road for Cobb. Because she was African American, she faced segregation during the course of her education. Although she came from an upper-middle-class background, Cobb found that she had to go to black Chicago public schools. Cobb was in constant contact with African American professionals and was well aware of their accomplishments. She decided not to let anything stand in the way of her own success.

Supplementing her education with books from her father's library, Cobb had access to scientific journals and magazines, current event periodicals, and materials on successful African Americans. Although Cobb was at first interested in becoming a physical education teacher like her mother and aunt, she found that she was interested in biology when, in her sophomore year in high school, she studied cells through a microscope. An honors student, Cobb showed academic promise. She had a solid education and a drive to learn.

Although her interest in biology could have led her to become a medical doctor, Cobb was not interested in working directly with the sick. She was, nonetheless, interested in the theory of disease, an interest that later led her to become one of the leading cancer researchers in the United States.

Academic Career

When it came time to enroll in college, Cobb selected the University of Michigan. Due to the segregation of the dormitories at the university, all African Americans, regardless of their year of study, were forced to live in one house. In disgust at the racism still found there, Cobb left the University of Michigan after three semesters and earned her B.A. in biology from traditionally black Talladega College in Alabama.

Cobb applied for a teaching fellowship at New York University. Because of her race, she was at first turned down for the position. Cobb refused to accept the rejection and personally visited the college, which then accepted her because her credentials were so impressive. In 1945, Cobb started her career in teaching as a fellow there. In 1947, she earned an M.S. in cell physiology and in 1950 she earned a Ph.D. in cell physiology from New York University. Her dissertation was titled "Mechanisms of Pigment Formation."

Cobb was named an independent investigator for the Marine Biological Laboratory in 1949. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Cancer Research Foundation of Harlem Hospital and at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Attracted by theoretical approaches to biology, Cobb entered the field of research. Understanding the processes of living cells was at the heart of her studies. In particular, she found that tissue cultures were an interesting area of research. Determining which cells grew outside the body led to her study with Dorothy Walker Jones that looked at how human cancer cells were affected by drugs.

Entered Research and Administration

After she earned her doctorate, Cobb became a fellow at the National Cancer Institute. From 1952 to 1954, she directed the Tissue Culture Laboratory at the University of Illinois. Cobb took to the university life and went on to work for New York University and Hunter College in New York. She stayed at New York University from 1956 to 1960 as an assistant professor in research surgery. In 1960 Cobb became a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, where she continued her research until 1969.

Focusing on skin pigment and how melanin can protect skin from ultraviolet damage, Cobb looked at skin cancers, or melanomas. She also studied the differences between normal and cancerous pigment cells. Her research looked at neoplastic pigment cells and their development as well as exploring how hormones, chemotherapeutic drugs, and other agents could cause changes in cell division. She experimented with comparisons between how chemotherapy drugs performed in cancer patients and how they performed in vitro, or in other words, in laboratory test tubes, flasks, and dishes.

From 1969 to 1976, Cobb became dean of Connecticut College in New London, where she taught zoology. From 1976 to 1981, Cobb was a professor of biological sciences at Douglass College, a women's college at Rutgers University. She also served as dean. As she moved into administrative positions, Cobb used her influence to further the educational facilities and opportunities for those interested in studying the sciences.

In 1981, Cobb became president of California State University, Fullerton. There she was able to get state funding for a new science building and a new engineering and computer science building. She also raised private funds to found a gerontology center in the Orange County community. On campus, she was responsible for having an apartment complex built that ended Fullerton's status as a commuter college. In 1990, Cobb became a trustee professor at California State University, Los Angeles.

As administrative duties consumed much of her time, Cobb found less time for research. But she worked to ensure that others would have opportunities to pursue studies in the sciences.

Encouraged Others

Cobb never forgot the years of frustration she faced discrimination when pursuing her education. To help pave the way for other minorities who wanted to enter the sciences, Cobb established a privately funded program for minority students in premedical and predental studies at Connecticut College. She was tireless in her efforts to extend opportunities to women as well.

In her quest for equal access to opportunity, both educational and professional, Cobb sought to increase diversity among faculty and students during her time at Fullerton. Also at Fullerton, Cobb started a president's opportunity program for minority students. She recognized a great difference between the number of blacks who pursued sports careers and the number of blacks who pursued research careers, so she set up teams of faculty members to tutor students on math skills. A solid foundation in math, Cobb believed, would help minorities prepare for a career in the sciences.

Cobb spent much of her time trying to start minorities on the path of science that she had followed. As a university trustee professor, Cobb worked with six colleges to find funding for minority grants and fellowships. When government funding for such programs was reduced, Cobb worked to find private funds to fill the void.

Education, according to Cobb, is a key factor in determining whether someone will be successful and independent or encounter failure and have to depend on welfare. She maintains that one of the best pathways to success is education, and it is the route she took to achieve her own personal accomplishments. She believes more minorities should have the chance to find their niche in society through education.

"There's been a deprivation of certain educational experiences that would give young people a proper boost and encouragement to study science [and technology]," Cobb told Black Enterprise. "I don't think there's anything wrong with [black children's abilities to learn.] It is a matter of being stimulated, having a curiosity about science early on, and developing the commitment and discipline to study."

In 1991, Cobb became principal investigator at Southern California Science and Engineering ACCESS Center and Network, which helps middle school and high school students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds pursue careers in engineering, mathematics, and the sciences. She continued to help in efforts to bring opportunities to minorities. In 2001, she was principal investigator for Science Technology Engineering Program (STEP) Up for Youth—ASCEND project at California State University, Los Angeles.

For her work helping minorities discover the rewards of a career in science, Cobb received the 1993 Lifetime Achievement Award. This was given by the National Academy of Science for her contributions to the advancement of women and underrepresented minorities. Her photograph hangs in the academy's hall reserved for distinguished scientists.

Led a Distinguished Career

Cobb's many accomplishments include an honorary doctorate of science from Pennsylvania Medical College. She also holds honorary doctorates from the Medical College of Pennsylvania, Northern University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Rutgers University, and Tuskegee University. A trustee at a number of colleges, Cobb holds twenty-one honorary degrees.

Memberships include Human Resource Commission, Sigma Xi, National Academy of Sciences (Institute of Medicine), and National Science Foundation. She was a fellow of National Cancer Institute and New York Academy of Science. She also served on Allied Corporation's board of directors. From 1972 to 1974, she was a member of the Tissue Culture Association of the Education Committee. She received research grants from the American Cancer Society from 1971 to 1973 and from 1969 to 1974. She also developed and directed a fifth-year postbaccalaureate pre-medical program.

Since 1972, Cobb has been a member of the Marine Biological Laboratory. Since 1973, she has been on the Board of Trustees for the Institute of Education Management. After Cobb retired, Fullerton named her named president and professor of biological science, emerita.

Cobb is the author of many publications, including articles, books, and scholarly reports. She is a recipient of the Achievement in Excellence Award from the Center for Excellence in Education and the Reginald Wilson Award from the American Council on Education, Office of Minorities in Higher Education.

Cobb's struggles as an African American female left her with the conviction that racism and sexism were challenges that made it tougher for those like her to succeed. But, once she succeeded, she was determined to share her success with others.

Cobb married Roy Cobb, an insurance salesman, in 1954 and had a son, Jonathon Cobb, in 1957. They divorced in 1967.


Black Enterprise, February 1985, pp. 49-54.

Ebony, August 1982, pp. 97-100.


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"Jewel Plummer Cobb Honored," Emeritopics on the Web, CSU, Fullerton, (January 6, 2002). □