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COBB, William Montague 1904-1990

American National Biography Online

Cobb, William Montague (12 Oct. 1904-20 Nov. 1990), physical
anthropologist and anatomist, was born in Washington, D.C., the
son of William Elmer Cobb, a printer, and Alexzine Montague.
Experiencing racial segregation in education, he graduated in
1921 from Dunbar High School, an elite college-preparatory school
for African Americans. Cobb attended Amherst College, where he
pursued a classical education in arts and sciences, graduating
in 1925. After graduation he received a Blodgett Scholarship
to study biology at Woods Hole Marine Biology Laboratory in Massachusetts.

There he met Howard University biologist Ernest Everett Just
and decided to attend Howard University's College of Medicine.
At the time, Howard was undergoing a transformation as its first
African-American president, Mordecai Johnson, attempted to place
the university under greater African-American control. Showing
great academic promise, Cobb was groomed to become a new member
of the faculty. After receiving his medical degree in 1929, he
was sent to Cleveland for postgraduate study at Western Reserve University.

Even before he could read, Cobb had been intrigued by pictures
of human biological variation, or "race." At Western Reserve
he pursued this interest by studying anatomy and the emerging
discipline of physical anthropology under T. Wingate Todd, who
amassed one of the two most extensive research collections of
human skeletons in the United States, the Hamman-Todd Collection.
Cobb spent two years at Western Reserve, earning a doctoral degree
in 1932 on the basis of a thesis that inventoried skeletal material
available for anthropological study in the United States. He
was the first and, until the early 1950s, the only African American
to earn a Ph.D. in physical anthropology.

In 1932 Cobb returned to Howard University as professor of anatomy,
intent on establishing a skeletal collection for the use of African-American scientists. He prepared more than 700 skeletons from cadavers and compiled documentation on 300 more. Through his efforts,
the Cobb Collection at Howard grew to become comparable to the
Hamman-Todd Collection and the Terry Collection at the Smithsonian
Institution--an irreplaceable resource for studying the remains
of Washington's poor from the Great Depression. Such skulls were
particularly valuable because they provided a unique record of
past states of sickness and health.

During his early years on the Howard faculty, Cobb continued
to work on skeletal collections. His work resulted in important
publications on the cranio-facial union, showing how the cranial
portion of the skull grows relatively fast and remains stable
after birth, while the facial portion grows relatively slowly
and can be modified by the environment. He also undertook a massive
study of cranial suture closure, showing that it is an unreliable
estimator of skeletal age. In the 1930s many Americans believed
that the emerging preeminence of African-American sprinters and
broad-jumpers in Olympic competition was due to racial anatomy.
Cobb refuted this view by carefully measuring African-American
Olympic athletes and comparing their measurements to European-American
and African-American skeletal averages. Jesse Owens's measurements,
for example, turned out to be more "typical" of European-Americans
than of African-Americans, showing that racial biology and behavior
are not fixed. This important finding had broad application outside athletics.

Cobb believed that African Americans represented a population
whose physical and intellectual vigor had been enhanced by the
evolutionary bottleneck of slavery. Slave-traders had selected
superior physical specimens to transport to the Americans, and
of these, only the strongest had survived the new diseases and
brutal labor they encountered there. Considering the social barriers,
their achievements were extraordinary. Furthermore, he believed
that African Americans were highly adaptable and would become
more genetically varied as social barriers to racial mixing crumbled.
These views were intended to counteract prevailing views that
African Americans were inferior because they had been insufficiently
exposed to European-American culture.

Cobb also undertook to show how racism and segregation were
exacting a biological toll on African Americans and, through
the added cost of separate and unequal health care, a financial
toll on all Americans. He worked diligently for the racial integration
of American hospitals and medical schools. To this end, he created
the Imhotep National Conference on Hospital Integration, which
met annually from 1957 through 1963, ending with the passage
of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Cobb was invited to attend the
formal signing of the 1965 Medicare Bill, which the Conference
had promoted. On the subject of race, he published many articles
in both popular and scientific journals, especially the Journal
of the National Medical Association, which he edited for twenty-eight
years. Among his associates in the integration effort were Ralph
Bunche and W. E. B. Du Bois. He was among the first physical
anthropologists to direct the resources of that discipline toward
social problems.

Cobb graduated from Howard in the same year that the American
Association of Physical Anthropologists was founded; he contributed
actively to the association in its formative years and was its
president (1957-1959). As Cobb matured professionally, he rose
to prominence in other anthropological and medical organizations,
serving as president of the National Medical Association (1964-1965)
and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
(1976-1982). He chaired the department of anatomy at Howard University
College of Medicine from 1949 until 1969, when he became distinguished
professor, then distinguished professor emeritus in 1973.

Cobb was accomplished in the arts as well as science, playing
violin and reciting literature and poetry, often in class. He
was remembered by associates as a well-rounded Renaissance man.
Later in life, his humanistic side flourished as he philosophized
about the duality of human nature. Cobb presented his last professional paper in 1987. In his lifetime he received more than 100 awards, published more than 1,000 articles, and taught several thousand students. He died in Washington, D.C.


Documents relating to Cobb, including transcripts of interviews,
are in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University.
His publications include "Race and Runners," Journal of Health
and Physical Education 7 (1936): 1-9; "The Negro as a Biological
Element in the American Population," Journal of Negro Education
8 (1939): 336-48; "The Cranio-Facial Union in Man," American
Journal of Physical Anthropology 26 (1940): 87-111; "Suture Closure
as a Biological Phenomenon," in Estratto dal Volume degli Atti,
Fourth Congress of the International Association of Gerontology,
ed. Tito Mattioli (1957); and "The Imhotep National Conference
on Hospital Integration," Journal of the National Medical Association
49 (1957): 54-61. For an assessment of Cobb's contributions to
anthropology, see Lesley M. Rankin-Hill and Michael L. Blakey,
"W. Montague Cobb (1904-1990): Physical Anthropologist, Anatomist
and Activist," American Anthropologist 96, no. 1 (1996): 74-96.
An obituary by Rankin-Hill and Blakey is in American Journal
of Physical Anthropology 92 (1993): 545-48.

Paul A. Erickson

Paul A. Erickson. "Cobb, William Montague";;
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
Access Date:
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