Black History is American History – February 11
Jewel Plummer Cobb (1924 – 2017)
Jewel Plumber Cobb, a cell biologist and cancer researcher, was born in Chicago, Illinois on January 17, 1924 to Frank V. Plummer, a physician, and Carrabelle (Cole) Plummer, a schoolteacher. Her grandfather, who had been freed from slavery, became a pharmacist, initiating four generations of medical practitioners. An only child, Jewel Plummer began reading her father’s scientific journals to supplement her science training while in junior high school. Plummer was a high school honor student where she focused on biology.
Although Cobb began her college career at the University of Michigan in 1942, she left in her sophomore year because of the institution’s practice of requiring all African American students to reside in one house on campus. She completed her B.A. in biology at Talladega College, Alabama in 1947.
Cobb then decided to attend graduate school and applied for a fellowship but was initially rejected by New York University (NYU) because of her race. However, she decided to visit the campus where she impressed the biology faculty who granted her the fellowship. Plummer earned an M.S. at NYU in 1947 and Ph.D. in 1950 in cell physiology with a dissertation titled, “Mechanisms of Pigment Formation.” In 1949 while still in graduate school Cobb was named an independent investigator for the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. She then held prestigious postdoctoral fellowships at the Cancer Research Foundation of Harlem Hospital, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and the National Cancer Institute.
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. Cobb is the recipient of several honorary doctorates and many awards, including the Kilby Award for lifetime achievement in 1995.
Jewel Cobb’s research focused on skin cancer and in particular the ability of melanin to protect skin from damage. Her most significant research has been with testing new chemotherapeutic drugs in cancer cells, the impact of which continues. She also examined how hormones, ultraviolet light, and chemotherapeutic drugs could cause changes in cell division. Much of that work was done while she was on the faculty at the University of Illinois from 1952 to 1954, where she directed the Tissue Culture Laboratory, as well as at New York University from1956 to 1960, and Sarah Lawrence College between 1960 and 1969.
In 1969, Cobb took the first of several administrative posts. She served as Dean of Arts and Sciences at Connecticut College between 1969 and 1976, where she was also a professor of zoology. From 1976 to 1981 she was a professor of biological sciences and Dean of Douglass College, a women’s college at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
In 1981 Jewel Plumber Cobb became President of California State University, Fullerton. While at Cal State Fullerton, she led a successful effort to obtain funding for the campus’s new science and engineering building and the new computer science building. She also initiated medical and pre-dental programs for minorities and women in the sciences.
In 1990 Cobb relinquished the Presidency and became a California State University Los Angeles Trustee Professor. In that capacity she worked with impoverished youth through Southern California Science and Engineering ACCESS Center and Network, and the Science Technology Engineering Program (STEP) between 1991 and 2001. She also led California State University’s ASCEND projects promoting careers in science, math, and engineering. The National Academy of Sciences gave Cobb its 1993 Lifetime Achievement Award for her work promoting the sciences as a career field for youth of color.
A supporter of equal access to educational and professional opportunity, Cobb has written often about racial and sexual discrimination in the sciences, and has raised funds to allow more minorities to enter into the field. Since her retirement, Cobb, was named President and Professor of Biological Science, Emerita at California State University at Fullerton and Trustee Professor at California State University at Los Angeles. In 2004 she returned to the East Coast. Cobb had been living in Maplewood, New Jersey, when she passed away on January 1, 2017.
Jewel Plummer Cobb, “Filters for Women in Science,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 323, 1979
“Jewel Plummer Cobb,” in Who’s Who Among African Americans (Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2003)