As a ground-breaking researcher, distinguished professor, and top university administrator, Jewel Plummer Cobb has forever changed the face of the scientific community. Not only has her research advanced our understanding of the skin cells that produce melanin and how those cells become cancerous, but she has also led the way for equal access to education and professional opportunities for women and minorities. Despite personal challenges stemming from racism and sexism, she was committed to using her success to encourage women and minorities to enter the fields of science, mathematics, and engineering.
Cobb’s family was steeped in the medical profession. Her grandfather, a freed slave, had graduated from Howard College in 1898 with a degree in pharmacy and her father was a physician. The third generation of medical professionals, Cobb was born in Chicago, the daughter of Frank Plummer and Carriebel Cole Plummer, a schoolteacher. Though forced by segregation to attend less academically rigorous public schools, Cobb determined early on that she would not be deterred. She became interested in biology when she first examined cells through a microscope in high school.
Cobb first attended the University of Michigan, but left the school because of its lingering culture of discrimination, ultimately earning her B.A. in Biology from traditionally black Talladega College in Alabama. She then applied for a teaching fellowship at New York University but was rejected because of her race. She personally visited the school to present her credentials and was ultimately accepted to the position. She began teaching at NYU in 1945 and received her M.S. in cell physiology in 1947 and Ph.D. in 1950.
Upon her graduation, Cobb began working in the field of cancer research, becoming a fellow at the National Cancer Institute. From 1952 to 1954, she directed the Tissue Culture Laboratory at the University of Illinois, then went on to teach and conduct research at New York University, Hunter College, and Sarah Lawrence College. Cobb began researching the effects of chemotherapy drugs on human cells infected with cancer. Primarily concerned with melanoma, a type of skin cancer, her research included skin pigment cells and focused specifically on melanin, which gives skin its pigmentation. Her findings continue to be useful to scientists as they work to create new and more effective cancer fighting tools.
In 1967, she came to Connecticut where she was appointed Dean and Professor of Zoology at Connecticut College in New London. Along with her continued research, she also began to institute and fund model programs to encourage and retain women and under-represented minorities who sought to enter traditionally white male-dominated fields. When she left Connecticut College in 1975 to become Dean at Douglass College, the women’s division within Rutgers University, she continued her work to improve the access of women and minorities to science and mathematics fields. Though the college already had a strong presence of women mathematicians and chemistry professors, Cobb worked to attract more women to the sciences with new programs. In 1979, she published “Filters for Women in Science,” an article in which she exposed how educational systems and other “filters” discouraged women from careers in science and math, which ultimately affected their university tenure and equal pay.
Cobb was appointed President of California State University at Fullerton in 1981. During her tenure at CSUF she obtained state funds to construct new science and engineering buildings and found funding to build the university’s first apartment complex, thus ending Fullerton’s status as a commuter college. Perhaps even more importantly, Cobb developed a president’s opportunity program for minority students and set up faculty teams to tutor students in mathematics in an attempt to boost their achievement in college courses.
Cobb retired from Fullerton in 1991. In addition to serving on many boards of trustees, she is the recipient of more than twenty honorary degrees. In 1993 she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Science. The Center for Excellence selected her to receive the Achievement in Excellence Award in 1999 and, in 2001, she was the first recipient of the Reginald Wilson Award for significant and noteworthy accomplishments in the area of diversity in higher education.
Throughout her career, Jewel Plummer Cobb worked tirelessly to promote opportunities for young women and minorities to enter the sciences and other traditionally white male-dominated fields. When public funds ran dry, she turned to private sources and never veered from her belief that education was the key to a life of success and independence.
During This Time
1946 - 1965: Women’s Activism in Conservative Times
The Cold War in the 1950s between the Soviet Union and the United States produced fear of domestic subversion. The McCarthy Era purged suspected Communists from government, the entertainment industry, and universities, and labeled gays and lesbians as un-American security risks. General anxiety contributed to a popular conception of the family as a source of social stability, and reinforced traditional notions of women’s place at home. In 1963, Betty Friedan called this promise of fulfillment through the domestic arts the “feminine mystique,” and advocated instead that women seek personal careers.
For two decades, a burgeoning economy and a growing consumer culture had expanded the availability of jobs for women. Notable was the increase in the workforce of married women, especially middle-class white women and educated women, though they were viewed in the media as working less for a career than to assist their families with needed income or desirable amenities for the home.
Some working-class women in labor unions challenged traditional cultural norms, such as the United Electric, Radio and Machine Workers who achieved non-discrimination clauses in local contracts. Middle-class women moderated their interest in women’s issues, promoting instead advancement through the League of Women Voters, YWCA, and the American Association of University Women. More radical women in Women Strike for Peace demonstrated against the nuclear arms race and were summoned to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1962. Many activists would join the Civil Rights Movement.
The movement against segregation following World War II dates from the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated schools are inherently unequal and thus a violation of the 14th amendment. African-Americans were given new hope, and in 1955 Rosa Parks, a black seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, triggered a bus boycott of critical importance. Black women and white women took part in boycotts, sit-ins, demonstrations, and marches. A culminating achievement in 1965 was the Voting Rights Act pushed through by President Johnson.
Mexican-Americans in the southwest also fought to improve their life and work conditions. In 1962, Dolores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers, played a leading role in organizing a national boycott of grapes that forced growers to sign a contract with the union.
Other ethnic groups were soon to come to America, enriching its diversity. The Immigrant and Nationality Act of 1965 established an immigration system based on family preference. Half of the new immigrants came from Mexico and Central and South America, while a quarter were from Asia. Two-thirds of the immigrants were women and children. While poverty and acculturation were issues, for many the time-honored American process of upward social mobility had begun.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.