Jewel Plummer Cobb
Scientist and Social Reformer of Advancement of Women and Underrepresented Minorities
1924 – 1971 A.D.
By Kathleen McFadden
Jewel Plummer Cobb encountered some covert racism growing up in a prosperous middle class African-American community in Chicago, but it was when she entered college that she came face to face with the ugly realities of segregation. After being forced to live in segregated housing at the University of Michigan for three semesters, Jewel transferred in protest to the historically black Talladega College where she graduated with a degree in biology in 1944.
That achievement made her the third generation in her family to pursue a career in the medical/scientific field. Her father was a physician who had graduated from Cornell. Her grandfather was a pharmacist who had graduated from Howard University in 1898. But Jewel wasn’t finished with school yet. She applied to New York University for graduate school and was initially rejected once the admissions department learned her race. Instead of accepting the rejection, Jewel visited the school, appealed the decision by presenting her impressive credentials, and secured her graduate fellowship.
At NYU, Jewel earned a master’s degree in cell physiology in 1947, followed by a Ph.D. in 1950. After teaching for several years at NYU, Jewel became professor of biology at Sarah Lawrence College, a post she held for nine years. She then moved along to Connecticut College and Douglass College, and held the position of dean at both schools. In 1981, she was named the president of California State University at Fullerton.
While at Fullerton, Jewel was instrumental in establishing the first privately funded gerontology center in Orange County, California, and she also promoted ethnic diversity on the campus by creating the school’s first president’s opportunity program. Through her long career, much of Jewel’s research has focused on the skin pigment melanin, with the most significant work done in testing new chemotherapeutic drugs in cancer cells. She is the recipient of 21 honorary doctorates from schools such as the Medical College of Pennsylvania, Rutgers University, Tuskegee University, Northeastern University, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
In 1993, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Contributions to the Advancement of Women and Underrepresented Minorities from the National Science Foundation. Jewel actively promoted science education programs for minority youth and greater representation of women in science.