(1924- ) American Cancer Researcher
Jewel Plummer Cobb has excelled not only as a scientist, conducting research and teaching, but also as a college administrator. Born on January 17, 1924, in Chicago, she grew up in a family who discussed “science things at the dinner table.” Her father, Frank, was a physician. Carriebel, her mother, taught physical education. Jewel became interested in biology in high school, when she looked through a microscope for the first time. “It was really awe inspiring,” she said.
Plummer earned her B.A. at Talladega College in Alabama in 1944 and her master’s degree (1947) and Ph.D. (1950) at New York University. She then joined the Cancer Research Foundation of Harlem Hospital in New York City, where she worked under another African-American woman scientist, Jane Wright. Wright and Plummer tried to develop a way to test anticancer drugs on cells from a patient’s tumor in the laboratory to determine the best dose to give to the patient. Plummer did the lab work, studying cells under the microscope and making time-lapse films to show how they changed after drugs were added. Although the project did not succeed, the researchers learned valuable information about how the drugs affected cancer cells.
Plummer left full-time research in 1952 and began teaching at the University of Illinois. In 1954 she married Roy Cobb, an insurance salesman, and they had a son, Jonathan. She moved to Sarah Lawrence College in 1960. There, in addition to teaching, she did research on skin cells, both normal and cancerous, that contain the dark pigment melanin.
The Cobbs were divorced in 1967, leaving Jewel Cobb with a young son to raise alone. In 1969 she became dean of Connecticut College and thus began a third career, that of college administrator. She eventually had to give up research because of the time it demanded.
Cobb became dean of Douglass College, the women’s college of Rutgers University, in 1976. Then in 1981 she became president of the California State University campus at Fullerton. No other African-American woman had headed such a large public university on the West Coast. While there she established two new schools—one of communication and one of engineering and computer science—as well as the campus’s first residence hall.
As of 2004, Cobb was president and professor of biological science, emerita, at California State University at Fullerton and trustee professor at California State University, Los Angeles. From her office in Los Angeles she oversees a center that works to improve science education for minority students. She once told an interviewer that she wanted to be remembered as “a black woman who cared very much about what happens to young folks.” In 1993, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award or Contributions to the Advancement of Women and Underrepre-sented Minorities from the National Science Foundation.