Updated: Apr 7, 2022
“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.”
JPC at Harlem Hospital, 1950s. Image courtesy of Launer
Local History Room of the Fullerton Public Library.
Jewel Plummer Cobb accomplished so much during her lifetime that it’s a wonder she isn’t a household name. Born in Chicago in 1924, Jewel was the great-granddaughter of Adam Francis Plummer, and granddaughter of Adam’s youngest son, pharmacist Robert Francis Plummer. Jewel’s father Frank was a doctor and the first Black MD graduate of Cornell University. Her mother Carriebel Cole was a PE and dance teacher. Both parents instilled in Jewel the importance of education from a young age.
Jewel excelled academically despite the overcrowded, poorly funded schools she was forced to attend because of her race. She thought she would follow in her mother’s footsteps until she took a biology class in high school and discovered the wonder of microscopes for the first time. She started her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan, but found the racial discrimination so stressful that she transferred to Talladega College, an HBCU in Alabama. Jewel moved through university swiftly, and graduated with a BA in biology in 1944.
The world opened up for Jewel when she started her PhD at NYU. She earned her doctorate in 1950 with a dissertation titled Mechanisms of Pigment Formation, which focused on tyrosinase, an enzyme that helps synthesize melanin. This would set her on a path of discovery and accomplishment in the field of cell physiology over the next seven decades.
Image courtesy of National Academy of Sciences.
With a grant from the National Cancer Institute, Jewel began her post-doctoral research at the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Center, where she studied the affects of different chemotherapy drugs on cancer cells culled from patient biopsies. In 1962 she established her own lab at the University of Illinois Medical School and continued her research on the relationship on the role of skin pigmentation in cancer development.
Jewel moved her lab to Harlem in 1954, where she worked side by side with her former mentor Jane Wright. In 1961, Cobb and Wright published a groundbreaking study on the effects of chemotherapy’s effects on 188 different tumor samples. They had included healthy and benign samples as controls, having successfully developed them in their lab, an incredibly challenging task. Their paper effectively showed how melanin is protective against UVA/UVB rays, a crucial finding that revolutionized the study of skin cancer and field of dermatology. She would build on this research throughout her career, leading to her discovery of methotrexate’s efficacy as a cancer drug.
The list of Jewel Plummer Cobb’s professional achievements and honors is too long to include here, but highlights include:
- head of Sarah Lawrence College’s biology lab, where she was a teacher and mentor to young women in science
- Dean of Arts and Sciences at Connecticut College (the first black Dean in the history of CC), where she actively supported minority students in STEM
- director of the American Council on Education
- dean and professor of Biology at Rutgers University
- President of California State University, Fullerton
- National Academy of Sciences Lifetime Achievement Award
Cobb held the above positions against the backdrop of the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements of the 1960s and 70s. As Cobb later remarked, “As far as the women’s movement goes, I was living a feminist life by example.”
In her leadership role at CSU-Fullerton from 1981 to 1990, Jewel Plummer Cobb acquired funding for a new Engineering and Computer Science Building, the Ruby Gerontology Center, and the campus’s first student residence building. She was also passionate about promoting women’s studies, having discovered on arrival that the university library’s holdings on the subject were “practically nonexistent.”
Jewel Plummer Cobb as president of Cal State Fullerton, 1980s.
Image courtesy of Launer Local History Room of the Fullerton Public
One of Cobb’s primary legacies is her 1979 paper Filters for Women in Science, which outlined the challenges that young women face in entering and succeeding in science and engineering careers. She was also chair of a conference that produced The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science. Findings in both reports are unfortunately still relevant today.
At the end of her long life, Jewel lived in Maplewood, New Jersey. She died on New Year’s Day 2017, just a couple weeks shy of her 93rd birthday. Her only child, Jonathan, is a radiologist, thus continuing in the STEM-oriented footsteps of his mother, grandfather Frank, and great-grandfather Robert Francis.
Art by @jayeperview for JKX Comics, a Tumblr site by STEM PhDs.
To learn more, visit Jesse La Tour's wonderful blog post about Cobb at http://jesselatour.blogspot.com/2014/07/jewel-plummer-cobb-life.html
and Cobb's page on the website of the Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame at https://www.cwhf.org/inductees/jewel-plummer-cobb