Jewel Plummer Cobb (January 17, 1924 – January 1, 2017) was a distinguished American biologist, cancer researcher, and academic administrator. She served as president of California State University, Fullerton from 1981 to 1990.
Jewel Plummer was born in Chicago on January 17, 1924 as the only child of Frank V. Plummer, and Carriebel (Cole) Plummer. She was the great-granddaughter of a freed slave. Her grandfather was a pharmacist, her father Frank was a physician. Her mother Carriebel was a physical education teacher. Cobb enjoyed an upper-middle-class background and had access to her father’s library, which contained scientific journals. It is recorded that the concerns and accomplishments of Black Americans were often discussed in her household. She initially intended to become a physical education teacher. However, during her sophomore year of high school, she became interested in biology. Both Cobb’s schoolwork and her interest in science were supported by her parents. Cobb matriculated at the University of Michigan in 1942, but unsatisfied with segregated housing for African-American students at Michigan, she transferred to Talladega College in Alabama, where she graduated with a B.A. in biology in 1945. She became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
Cobb initially was denied a fellowship for graduate study in biology at New York University because of her race. However, following a personal interview, she was granted the fellowship. She received her M.S. degree from NYU in 1947 and her Ph.D. degree in cell physiology in 1950. Her dissertation “Mechanisms of Pigment Formation” examined the way melanin pigment granules could be formed in vitro using the enzyme tyrosinase. In 1949 she was appointed an independent investigator at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory.
Following the receipt of her Ph.D. from NYU, Cobb held post-doctoral positions at the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Foundation, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and the National Cancer Institute.
Cobb’s research included work on the relationship between melanin and skin damage, and on the effects of hormones, ultraviolet light, and chemotherapy agents on cell division. Cobb discovered that methotrexate was effective in the treatment of certain skin cancers, lung cancers, and childhood leukemia. This drug continues to be used in chemotherapy to treat a wide range of cancers, and in lower doses to treat a number of autoimmune diseases. In addition, Cobb was the first to publish data on the ability of actinomycin D to cause a reduction of nucleoli in the nucleus of human normal and malignant cells.
Cobb directed the tissue culture laboratory at the University of Illinois from 1952 to 1954, and worked as a faculty member at NYU from 1956 to 1960, and at Sarah Lawrence College from 1960 to 1969.
Cobb collaborated with numerous other researchers, including noted oncologist Jane C. Wright, Grace Antikajian, and Dorothy Walker Jones. Her most influential mentors were her bacteriology professor James R. Hayden and biochemistry professor M.J. Kopac.
In recognition of her research achievements, Cobb was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 1974. She was a member of the National Science Board from 1974 to 1980.
Cobb began her career in academic administration in 1969 at Connecticut College, where she served as Dean of Arts and Sciences and professor of zoology until 1976. In 1976 she became Dean of Douglass College at Rutgers University, where she also was a professor of biological sciences. She served in this position until 1981, when she was appointed President of California State University, Fullerton. Cobb served as president at Cal State Fullerton until 1990 when, at the age of 66, she was forced to retire under a rule imposed that year by the then Chancellor of the California State University System, W. Ann Reynolds, which required all campus presidents 65 or older to retire.
Cobb’s presidency at Cal State Fullerton was notable for her success in obtaining funds for the construction of several new buildings on the campus. These included the Engineering Building, and the Computer Science Building constructed with state funds and the Ruby Gerontology Center, which was the first building on the campus constructed entirely with private donations. She also obtained funds for the construction of the first student residences on the campus. This student apartment complex has since been named in her honor. Cobb also negotiated an agreement with the Marriott Corporation and the city of Fullerton for lease of campus land for the construction of a hotel, which made available funds for the construction of a sports complex on the campus. In addition, much of the planning for the Science Laboratory Center, now Dan Black Hall, was done while Cobb was president. Julian Foster, a campus leader and prominent political scientist, said Cobb’s emphasis on research and scholarship may be her most important contribution. Chairman of speech communications Joyce Flocken said she was touched when she read Cobb’s philosophy in a newspaper article: “Remember, everyone’s trying to get through this life the best way they can”.
Cobb’s tenure at Cal State Fullerton was not without controversy. Some members of the faculty were not comfortable with her emphasis on research and scholarly activities in addition to teaching on a campus where many felt that the primary mission was teaching. Her decision to enter into the agreement to build the hotel on campus and to add a satellite campus in the southern part of Orange County also generated criticism on campus. However, she brought both of these issues to the Faculty Senate for a vote in which her decisions were upheld.
Photo: Los Angeles Times0