Cobb, Jewell Plummer (1924—)

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Cobb, Jewell Plummer (1924—)

African-American educator, administrator, and cell biologist who pioneered programs for the inclusion of women and minorities in the sciences. Born on January 17, 1924, in Chicago, Illinois; daughter of Carriebel (Cole) Plummer and Frank V. Plummer; awarded B.S.C., Talladega College, Alabama, 1941, M.S.C., New York University, 1947, Ph.D. New York University, 1950; married Roy Paul Cobb, in 1954 (divorced 1967); children: Roy Jonathan Cobb (b. 1957).


Key Pin Award, New York University (1952); research grant from the American Cancer Society (1969); honorary Ph.D., Wheaton College (1971); honorary Ph.D., Lowell Technical Institute (1972); honorary Ph.D., Pennsylvania Medical College (1975).

Enrolled at the University of Michigan (1941); transferred to Talladega College (1942), graduated (1944); enrolled at New York University (1944), graduated (1950); became fellow of the National Cancer Institute, Harlem Hospital (1950); was instructor at Universityof Illinois (1952); was instructor at New York University (1955); was visiting lecturer at Hunter College (1956–57); promoted to assistant professor, New York University (1956); was professor of biology at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York (1960); appointed dean of Connecticut College and Sarah Lawrence (1969); appointed the only minority member on the National Science Board (1974); appointed dean of biology at Douglass College, Rutgers University (1976); appointed president of California State University at Fullerton (1981); appointed Trustee Professor of the California State College, Los Angeles (1990).

Jewell Plummer Cobb was born in Chicago, Illinois, on January 17, 1924, the only child of an upper-middle-class couple, Frank Plummer and Carriebel Cole Plummer . Jewell's parents could scarcely have been better role models; they placed great emphasis on academic achievements. Frank was a founder of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Cornell University and subsequently earned a degree in medicine from Rush Medical School. He spent his internship at Provident Hospital, which serviced the black community. As the segregationist laws of the United States forbade African-American doctors from

treating white patients, Provident hospital served a pivotal role in Frank's training. In 1923, he opened a practice in Chicago and became a fixture of the growing African-American community. His office was located on 59th and State Street, within easy reach of the city's many stockyard employees.

Carriebel Cole Plummer moved to Washington, D.C., from the south while still a child. A great admirer of Isadora Duncan (Jewell's middle name), Carriebel studied interpretive dance and received a degree in physical education from Sargeants, a college affiliated with Harvard University. After marrying Frank, Carriebel taught physical education and dance in the Chicago public school system for many years. In 1944, she also received a Bachelor of Arts from the YMCA College, which subsequently became Roosevelt University.

While financially privileged, Jewell became aware at an early age of the social restrictions placed on African-Americans. As Dona Irvin notes:

From her earliest memory she heard discussions of racial matters—the hopes and frustrations of her family and associates. She became familiar with the aspirations, successes, and talents of the black people. … Cobb never lost sight of the fact that she was a black person living in a white-dominated society. Through the years the Plummer family changed their place of residence more than once, always to a better location, and always after the white population had fled, thereby making a choice part of the city available to minorities for the first time.

As a young girl, Cobb attended the racially segregated schools of Chicago. She was fortunate, however, that the family possessed an extensive library, which helped to supplement her education. Among the books were works concerning African-Americans, magazines on current events, and scientific journals. The Plummers also made frequent trips to New York City to attend cultural events, such as the ballet, concerts, and the theater. At the age of four, Cobb was taken by her mother to see Porgy and Bess.

Family friends embraced a wide range of Chicago's African-American cultural elite. The historian Carter Woodson was a friend of Cobb's mother. Writer and librarian Arna Bontemps was a frequent visitor to the Plummer household, as was Cobb's uncle Bob Cole who was a well-known producer of musicals in New York. The famous anthropologist Allison Davis and Alpha White , director of the YWCA, both lived in the vicinity of the Plummer residence. The Plummers were also prominent members of Saint Edmund's Episcopal Church. Jewell was confirmed at Saint Edmund's, took communion there, and sang in the choir. The church was the social focus for many prominent African-American families. During the summers, the Plummers traveled to Idle Wild, a resort in northern Michigan, where prosperous African-American families maintained summer homes. There she played with school friends in idyllic surroundings.

Despite the segregation of the Chicago school system, Cobb flourished academically. Initially, she enrolled in Sexton Elementary school and was later transferred to Betsy Ross Elementary School. As a secondary student, she attended Englewood High School. Growing up, however, Cobb was unaware of the full extent to which race played a role in the Chicago school system. Writes Irvin:

Decades later Cobb learned about the gerrymandering of the school districts in Chicago to prevent extensive integration by black children. In one instance the removal of non-white students resulted in enough space to found a community college in the building.

Throughout her educational career, Jewell Plummer Cobb remained an honors student. Fascinated by biology, she devoured Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters. Her parents insisted that she enroll in college-preparatory courses, which included five years of science. Cobb took courses in zoology, botany, physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Despite the overcrowded and dilapidated conditions of Chicago's segregated school system, several of Cobb's peers also showed strong academic abilities. Many undertook careers in education or the social sciences.

After graduating with honors in 1941, Cobb enrolled at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Many of her summertime playmates from Idle Wild were also students there. The glamour of the University of Michigan's football team, headed by Tom Harmon, also attracted her. She met many African-American students from the south, who had been denied admission to their own state universities. Classes at the University of Michigan were not segregated, though dormitories, fraternities, sororities, and campus social life were. Cobb joined the African-American sorority Alpha Kappa.

For her second year of college, Cobb decided to transfer to Talladega College in Alabama with the encouragement of its dean of women, Hilda Davis . Talladega did not accept transfer credits, but students were allowed to take examinations for courses whenever they felt prepared to do so. In the more racially supportive environment of Talladega, Cobb entered the accelerated program, graduating three years later, in 1944, with a B.Sc. Her major was biology. America's involvement in World War II affected enrollment at the college. Only four of the thirty-two graduates that year were men.

That same year, with the encouragement of a bacteriology professor from Talladega, Cobb applied for a teaching fellowship at New York University (NYU) but was unsuccessful. When she arrived in New York, however, her excellent credentials spoke for themselves, and the decision was reversed. Following graduate research in biology. she completed her Ph.D dissertation in cell physiology in 1950. Her principle area of research was pigment cells and their effects of melanin.

In 1950, Cobb was awarded a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Cancer Institute. Instead of pursuing a medical career, she chose to focus on the theoretical approach to biology. As a cell biologist, she investigated the growth of cancer tumors in tissue cultures with Dr. Louis T. Wright at Harlem Hospital. Along with her research assistant Dorothy Walker Jones , a professor of biology at Howard University, Cobb also studied the effects of chemotherapy on cancer cells. She designed new experiments to compare the in vivo effects of chemotherapeutic agents (cells growing in the cancer patient) with in vitro effects of the same tissue obtained from the patient (cells growing in flasks, test tubes, or dishes).

In 1952, she moved to the University of Illinois, where she taught in the College of Medicine. Cobb also established the first tissue culture laboratory at the university, began a course in cell biology, and generated substantial research data on cancer cytology and bladder cancer. Research grants were provided by the Damon Runyon Fund and the National Institute of Health.

In 1954, Jewell Plummer married Roy Cobb. Three years later their son Roy Jonathan Cobb was born. The couple divorced in 1967. As a child, Cobb's son often visited her laboratory on weekends. Following in the footsteps of his great grandfather Robert Plummer, who had been a pharmacist, and his grandfather Frank, the boy would go on to graduate from Cornell Medical School and become a radiologist, specializing in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

From 1955 to 1956, Cobb taught at New York University and was promoted to assistant professor in 1956. She performed extensive research on the pigmentation of cells, particularly the influence of melanin on skin color. One of her primary research efforts sought to learn how melanin protected human skin from the ultraviolet rays of the sun. In 1960, Cobb moved to Sarah Lawrence College, where she was appointed professor of biology. While there, she continued her experiments on melanin, as well as working on mouse melanoma. Maintaining a heavy teaching schedule, she also found time to hold the position of dean.

While retaining her position as dean at Sarah Lawrence, Cobb assumed the duties of professor of biology, as well as those of dean at Connecticut College, in 1969. At Conn College, she established privately funded scholarship programs for minority and female students in the fields of premedicine and predentistry; the highly successful programs served as pioneering models for 20 similar programs established across America. Ninety percent of the students who participated in the Conn College experiment were accepted into medical or dental school. Upon her departure, however, the program was discontinued.

Davis, Hilda (b. 1905)

African-American educator. Born Hilda Andrea Davis on May 24, 1905, in Washington, D.C.; fourth child of Louis Alexander Davis and Ruth Gertrude (Cooke) Davis; graduated Howard University, 1925; attended Radcliffe, 1929–31; attended Alice Freeman Palmer course for Deans of Women at Boston University, 1932; earned a doctorate in human development at the University of Chicago.

In 1932, Hilda Davis signed on as dean of women and assistant professor of English at Shaw University, a liberal arts college in Raleigh, North Carolina, founded for blacks in 1865. Four years later, she became director of women's activities and associate professor of English at Talladega College in Alabama. Before long, she was dean of women and would soon be known as one of the most beloved deans in the south.

Over the years, Cobb has shown great concern regarding the stature of women in the sciences. In her 1979 article, "Filters for Women in Science," published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Cobb tried to unravel the reasons that "women, who constitute 52 percent of the population, make up only 20 percent of the scientists but less than one percent of the engineers." She used the analogy of a filter to demonstrate the institutional barriers that women face in gaining entry to scientific professions. She advocated increased support for girls' science programs at the elementary and secondary levels, and called for a revision of the traditional assumption that women cannot compete with their male peers in the scientific realm. For women already enrolled in the university system, Cobb advocated the formation of discussion groups comprised of undergraduate and graduate students. As well, she favored programs that help to financially support female graduate students, especially single mothers. She noted that in one recent year only four doctorates in mathematics were awarded to African-American students in the entire United States. From 1974 to 1980, Cobb was the only minority member on the National Science Board. Even so, she was instrumental in the creation of the Women and Minorities in Science Committee, designed to foster career awareness programs, teach refresher courses, and provide grant money for guest speakers at the secondary-school level.

It was not until she moved to Douglas College at Rutgers University in 1976, that the burdens of administration forced her to give up research. Cobb, however, continued to maintain a lively interest in cell biology and managed to keep abreast of developments in her field. Rutgers University named a residence hall in her honor. In 1981, Cobb moved to the California State University at Fullerton, where she assumed the office of president. Once established there, she quickly founded a privately funded gerontology center. In order to transform the university from a commuter campus to one more firmly rooted in the community, Cobb built a series of apartment complexes, also named in her honor, to serve the student body. As well, she lobbied the government of California for the construction of a new computer-sciences and engineering facility. In order to increase the number of female and minority students in the sciences, Cobb established programs similar to those she had pioneered at Connecticut College.

In 1990, Cobb was appointed Trustee Professor of the California State College in Los Angeles. She worked with a consortium of six colleges to encourage the participation of minority students in the sciences. The group devoted much of its time to corporate fund raising, as federal funding for such programs was on the decline. It also worked individually with students to help upgrade their educational skills.

That same year, Cobb retired as president of California State University. She continued, however, to serve as president emeritus and as a trustee. She has been honored for her work by the NAACP, and the American Medical Association. Her portrait also hangs in the National Sciences Academy in Washington, D.C., and she has been awarded several honorary degrees. Jewell Plummer Cobb's career has served to promote the inclusion of women and minorities in the sciences. As a result, she has influenced an entire generation of American scientists and opened the door of science to non-traditional practitioners.


Hawkins, Walter L. African-American Biographies. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 1992.

Irvin, Dona L. "Jewell Plummer Cobb," in Notable Black American Women. Edited by Jessie Carney Smith. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.

Taha, Kelle S. "Cobb, Jewel Plummer," in African-American Women. Edited by Dorothy C. Salmen. NY: Garland, 1993.

suggested reading:

Thompson, Kathleen. "Cobb, Jewell Plummer," in Black Women in America. Edited by Darlene Clark Hine. NY: Carlson, 1993.

Hugh A. Stewart , M.A., University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada