Over the course of 2016, we lost a great many pioneers, not only in the world of music, film and entertainment, but also in science and technology. On the first day of the new year, we said goodbye to another unsung hero — Dr. Jewel Plummer Cobb.
I first learned about Dr. Cobb from a 1989 essay she authored titled “A Life in Science: Research and Service,” published in the journal SAGE — A Scholarly Journal of Black Women. (Another article featured in that issue was an essay penned by STEM pioneer Dr. Evelyn Boyd Granville.) Cobb’s essay was an empowering narrative of academic persistence and detailed the challenges and triumphs of being a woman of color in a STEM career.
Cobb was indeed a trailblazer for women in the sciences, a prolific researcher in biology and the first African American woman west of the Mississippi to serve as president of a large research institution. Still today, there are very few African American women leading research institutions and few people of color holding any sort of STEM leadership positions in academia. Thus, I proudly tell the story of cell biologist, educator and college president, Dr. Jewel Plummer Cobb, another “Unsung” STEM hero and pioneer.
Cobb was born in Chicago in January of 1924. Her father Frank V. Plummer was a physician specializing in dermatology. Her mother Caribelle Cole Plummer was a physical education teacher.
After graduating from Englewood High School, Cobb enrolled at the University of Michigan in 1941 to pursue a degree in biology. She described her experiences at Michigan in her 1989 essay in SAGE. “The choice of Michigan socially, on one level, was also a good one in one way. For example, at that time over 200 Black students (over half of whom were graduate students), attended the university. Many were from the South where they could not, as Black students, be admitted to their state university or study for a professional degree. So those southern states paid the tuition and other fees for those students to study in the North.”
However, Cobb experienced some challenges at Michigan as well. “The choice of the University of Michigan, as well as Illinois and other Big Ten Universities, was a disaster for Black students then, however, in terms of dormitory living arrangements,” she wrote in that same essay. As a result, she transferred in 1942 to Talladega College in Alabama to complete her undergraduate degree in biology. From there, Cobb enrolled in the graduate biology program at New York University. She earned her master’s in 1947 and her Ph.D. in 1950 under the direction of biochemistry professor M.J. Kopak. Cobb’s dissertation research focused on the investigations of melanin pigments using the enzyme tyrosinase.
In July of 1950, Cobb received a postdoctoral fellowship sponsored by the National Cancer Institute and accepted a position at the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Foundation, led by Dr. Louis T. Wright. (Wright, a 1915 graduate of Harvard Medical School, was the first African American surgeon at Harlem Hospital.) Cobb’s experiences at Harlem Hospital laid the foundation for her 31-year career focused on cancer research.
She started out investigating the effects of a new chemotherapy agent, triethylenemelamine, on human tumor cells. She co-authored two papers with Wright, and a third with him and his daughter Jane, who was a trailblazer and pioneer in cancer research as well. After the death of her father, Dr. Jane C. Wright established a fruitful collaboration with Cobb focused on fundamental cell research, which led to a paper published in the journal Cancer in 1957. Cobb’s research collaborators included other female scientists Grace Antikajian and Dorothy G. Walker
In 1954, she married Roy Cobb. The couple later divorced, but had one son, Jonathan.
Over the course of her career, Cobb held several positions in academia, including at the University of Illinois, New York University, and Sarah Lawrence College. However, in 1969 she officially began her career as an academic administrator, when she was appointed Dean of Arts and Sciences and professor of zoology at Connecticut College.
In 1976, Cobb served as the Dean of Douglass College and as a professor of biology at Rutgers University. In 1981, she was named the third president of California State University, Fullerton until her retirement in 1990. During her tenure, CSU-Fullerton saw significant growth, including campus dormitories, new science and engineering facilities, and progressive policies to increase the numbers of women and people of color in the STEM disciplines.
In addition to her contributions to the field of cancer research and as an advocate for diversity in STEM, Cobb received numerous awards and accolades, including appointment to the National Science Board, which establishes the policies of the National Science Foundation.
Sibrina Collins is an organometallic chemist and former writer and editor for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. In July, 2016, she became the first executive director of the Marburger STEM Center at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan.