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Jewel Plummer Cobb - Overcomer and Cancer Biologist

By March 29, 2010

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Women's History Month

If you ever need to be treated with Methotrexate, thank the grand-daughter of a freed slave.  Jewel Plummer Cobb grew up in in Chicago, Illinois as the daughter of African-American college graduates: a doctor and a dance educator.  Her childhood home was stocked with an impressive library of books on science  and medicine, along with technical journals, magazines, and stories of successful African Americans.  Jewel read widely and began to focus on biology while in high school.  The Plummer family believed in integration and civil rights, but their daughter had to deal with segregation in public school and college.  Even though she came from a middle-class background, she was obliged to attend underfunded Chicago public schools reserved for blacks.  But following the examples of her parents and other African American professionals, Jewel set her mind to break barriers and succeed in her chosen field.

Cobb was a high school honors student, who one day looked at cells through a microscope in biology class.  That moment sparked her interest in studying the theory of disease, and set her on the path to becoming a leader in cancer research.  She started college at University of Michigan, but found that all black students were segregated into one dormitory.  She transferred to Talladega College in Alabama, where she earned her Bachelor's degree in biology.  For graduate school, she applied to New York University for a teaching fellowship in 1945.  When rejected because she was black, Cobb took matters into her own hands.  She went to New York, and so impressed the faculty there that she was awarded the position.  By 1947 she had her Master's degree and three years later, her Doctorate in cell physiology.  Cob did her postdoc work at Cancer Research Foundation of Harlem Hospital, and then became a fellow at the National Cancer Institute.

Cobb did extensive research in various academic labs on skin pigment, skin cancer, and how hormone and chemo treatments affect cell division.  As she worked in higher education as was promoted to professor, dean, and president, she worked to open doors for minorities.  Her work in providing opportunities for black students eventually led to the 1993 Lifetime Achievement Award, given by the National Academy of Science for the "advancement of women and underrepresented minorities."

While working on treatments for melanoma, Cobb tested Methotrexate and found it effective on skin and lung cancer, as well as childhood leukemia.  These days, Methotrexate is used for a broad range of cancers, including breast cancer.  This persistent woman, almost denied a college education, went on to earn her full degrees and was given 22 honorary doctorates and many other academic awards.  But at CalState Fullerton, where she served as president, she completely broke the circle of segregation, building multiethnic dormitories that were later named in her honor.  Now retired, but not resting, Cobb serves on the boards of many academic and scientific organizations, continuing her quest for equality and the cure.

Comments
December 1, 2011 at 1:20 pm
(1) hillary straub says:

wow, what an influential woman! i owe her my life for helping save my mother.

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