Jewel Cobb was born in Chicago on January 17, 1924 to an upper-middle class family. The great-granddaughter of a freed slave, her grandfather was a pharmacist and her father was a physician – this meant that Jewel’s passion for science was fostered at an early age. By her sophomore year in high school she had decided to pursue a career in biology rather than her initial goal of following in her mother’s footsteps as a physical education teacher.
Ms. Cobb was all too familiar with racial discrimination, having transferred to various elementary schools in Chicago due to gerrymandering. She quickly noticed that the predominantly white schools which she attended were in much nicer condition than the “overcrowded and dilapidated” schools which were largely African-American. While experiencing these disparities at school, Ms. Cobb’s family also regularly discussed discrimination in their household, so she was prepared when the segregated housing for African-American students at the University of Michigan left her feeling unfulfilled and marginalized. Eventually she transferred to Talladega College in Alabama and became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first Greek-lettered sorority started by African-American women in college.
After completing a B.A. in Biology, she was denied a graduate fellowship from NYU for her race. Not one to be easily discouraged, she arranged for an in-person interview and was subsequently granted a fellowship. Within five years Jewel completed both a M.S and a Ph.D. at NYU, studying the in vitro creation of melanin granules using the enzyme tyrosinase. She went on to hold research positions at some of the most prestigious institutions in the world including Columbia University, Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, and the National Cancer Institute.
Dr. Cobb’s continued a remarkable professional career. She discovered that certain skin cancers, childhood leukemia, and certain types of lung cancer can be treated with methotrexate – a drug still used in chemotherapy today. She also discovered the negative effects of actinomycin D on malignant cancer cells. She directed laboratories and acted as faculty at renowned universities such as Sarah Lawrence College, the University of Illinois, and even returning to her alma mater, NYU, from 1956-1960. Her outstanding professional contributions to research was recognized by the National Academy of Sciences in 1974 when they elected her to the NAS Institute of Medicine.
In 1969, Dr. Cobb switched paths to follow the academic administration track, beginning at Connecticut College where she served as both Zoology professor and Dean of Arts and Sciences until 1976. She went on to serve as professor and Dean at Douglass College (Rutgers University) and as President of Cal State, Fullerton, until she was forced to retire at age 66. Her tenure at Cal State was nevertheless impressive, resulting in new engineering and computer science buildings, as well as the first student housing on campus. She even successfully pushed for the addition of a satellite campus, after many rounds of controversy and criticism. She has since been awarded several honorary doctorates and lifetime achievement awards in both research and teaching.
In addition to being a complete research and administrative badass, she spent her career speaking out against the “filters” that keep women from pursuing science and developing programs that help students from disadvantaged backgrounds enter STEM fields. She has been a vocal supporter of civil rights, human rights, and an inspiration to underrepresented groups in academia and science. Dr. Cobb passed away earlier this year on January 1, 2017, at the age of 92.