Black History: Special Delivery!!
Jewel Plummer Cobb (1924 – 2017) grew up in Chicago, Illinois. Her groundbreaking research studied the relationship between skin pigmentation and cancer. She was also a staunch advocate for increasing the number of women and students of color in STEM careers. Her father, Frank Plummer was a doctor and her mother, Carriebel Cole Plummer, was physical education and dance teacher. Cobb’s grandfather was formerly enslaved man who received his freedom and graduated from Howard University in 1898, earning a degree in pharmacy. Growing up in Chicago, she attended segregated schools. An excellent student, she was accepted at the University of Michigan where she chose biology as her undergraduate major. Initially excited to move to Ann Arbor, Michigan, because of its black student population; she was disappointed by the isolation and racism she experienced. Prohibited from living in on-campus housing, she had to live off campus in housing assigned to black students. Many businesses such as restaurants and bars refused to serve black customers. Social life and recreational activities were also limited due to segregation and racism. After one year, she transferred to Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama (a historically black college). Talladega was everything that the University of Michigan was not; providing support and opportunities for mentorship by black professionals and educators. Cobb graduated in 1944 from Talladega College with a B.A. in biology.
She was accepted into grad school at New York University earning her masters degree in 1947 and her doctorate in 1950. As part of her doctoral research, she studied tyrosinase, an enzyme necessary for the synthesis of melanin (which determines skin color/pigmentation). Cobb maintained an interest in melanin and skin cancer for her entire career. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Center collaborating with renowned African American researchers, Dr. Louis Tompkins Wright and Dr. Jane C. Wright. Cobb studied cultures of cancer cells obtained from patient biopsies to better understand the effects of various chemotherapy medicines.
Through their work, Jane Wright and Cobb were able to determine that the study of cells using in vitro methods could be used to identify cancer treatment regimens for specific types of cancer. Cobb is an unsung trailblazer in the development of cancer research. Through her research, she also discovered higher amounts of melanin was a protective factor against certain types of cancer; which was groundbreaking at the time. She married Roy Cobb in 1954. They divorced in 1967. The couple had one son in 1957, Johnathan Cobb who is a neurobiologist. In 1969, she became the Dean of Connecticut College and began creating programs to encourage women and students of color to pursue STEM careers. She also served in other academic leadership roles including Dean of Douglass College (at Rutgers University). At this time she also decided to conclude her research efforts and focus on advocacy and mentoring of women students as well as students of color. She was relentless in her mission to increase the retention of women and students of color in science. Cobb became president of California University, Fullerton in 1981; making her one of the first African American women to lead a University in the United States. She remained there for almost twenty years; retiring in 1990; continuing her advocacy for women and students of color. During this time she also became the first African American woman appointed to the National Science Board. She died in 2017 due to complications related to Alzheimer’s.
Asked how she would like to be remembered during a 1990 interview she said,
“I think I’d like to be remembered as a black woman scientist who cared very much about what happens to young folks, particularly women going into science.”
Check out this video about her life: