About Dr. William Montague Cobb

William Montague Cobb was born into a segregated black community in Washington, D.C., on October 12, 1904. His mother, Alexzine E. Montague Cobb, was from an old Massachusetts family of black and Native American heritage. His father, William Elmer Cobb, had moved to Washington, D.C. from Selma, Alabama, in 1899 to work for the Government Printing Office. Even before he could read, Cobb was fascinated with the human racial types depicted in one of his grandfather’s books. But by the time he entered racially-segregated Patterson Elementary School, Cobb had learned that human variation, rather than something to celebrate, was used to oppress people. He attended Dunbar High School where many of the teachers had advanced degrees, since few colleges at the time would hire black instructors. Cobb studied violin and he taught himself boxing to deal with neighborhood conflicts. Impressed by the good works and social status of physicians, he decided to become a medical doctor.

Graduating from Dunbar in 1921, Cobb entered Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he received an education in languages, literature, philosophy, history, and the arts, as well as in the sciences. He also was a championship cross-country runner and boxer. Cobb was initiated into Gamma Chapter in 1922. At graduation in 1925, Cobb was awarded the Blodgett Scholarship for proficiency in Biology. This enabled him to study Embryology at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, with Dr. Ernest Everett Just of Howard University. As Cobb observed the fertilization and development of various marine species under the microscope, he learned to make the meticulous notes and drawings that would be a hallmark of his scientific career.

Cobb enrolled in Howard’s medical school after his time at Woods Hole and to earn money for tuition, Cobb worked as a waiter on a Great Lakes steamship, where jobs were assigned on the basis of race and ethnicity. Later he joined a grain harvester crew on the Saskatchewan frontier. Cobb earned his M.D. from Howard in 1929, working as an Embryology instructor during his final year of study. He completed an internship at Freedmen’s Hospital (now Howard University Hospital), passed his state board examinations, and prepared to enter private practice in Washington, D.C.

Cobb attended Western Reserve (now Case Western) University in Cleveland, on a fellowship from the General Education Board. There he trained in gross anatomy and physical anthropology with Thomas Wingate Todd. At a time when many anthropological studies focused on uncovering purported physical and mental differences among racial and socioeconomic groups, Todd was demonstrating that there were no racial differences in brain development. After earning his Ph.D. in 1932, Cobb returned to Howard as an assistant professor of anatomy and began building his laboratory. Each summer he returned to Cleveland to use the Hamann-Todd Collection to study craniofacial union, the area of the skull where the cerebral cranium or braincase joins the face and jaw. After completing his study of more than 3,300 human and other mammalian skulls in Cleveland, he studied the 1,500 skulls in the collections at Washington University in St. Louis. Craniofacial growth and development is still an important research area in physical anthropology and Cobb’s morphological and functional studies of development remain among the most comprehensive on the subject. Perhaps his most important finding was that suture closure in the craniofacial union is not a reliable method of estimating age. He reported on this work at meetings of the International Gerontological Congresses in London and Merano, Italy. Cobb considered these research papers to be among his best and they established his reputation as an anatomist.

Until the early 1950s Cobb was the only black American with a Ph.D. in physical anthropology. As such, his ideas came to represent the black perspective in that science. However he was careful to also pursue research interests that had nothing to do with race. Cobb’s anatomical research included skeletal aging, comparative dental anatomy, and cadaver demography. He established an advanced anthropology course at Howard and helped to integrate anthropology into other subject areas. He also helped create the standard color representation of heart anatomy.

Cobb’s research, which stressed human diversity while demonstrating the physical and intellectual equality of the races, led him to political action. He was a member of numerous anthropological, medical, and civil rights organizations, regularly attending meetings and holding leadership positions. He served two terms as president of the Medico-Chirurgical Society of the District of Columbia, the oldest black medical society in the country, and founded its Bulletin, which he edited for 45 years. He often published in the Journal of the National Medical Association, serving as its editor from 1949 to 1977 and as editor emeritus until his death.

One of the first biomedical anthropologists, Cobb applied anthropology to issues of clinical medicine and public health. He viewed racial integration both as an aspect of applied physical anthropology and as a requirement for alleviating the nation’s health problems. Cobb identified the exclusion of black patients and medical staff from hospitals and the exclusion of blacks from medical schools and professional organizations, as well as racial discrimination in prepaid health plans, as major contributors to the problems of black health care. He succeeded in opening the D.C. General Hospital and the Medical Society of the District of Columbia to black physicians.

Between 1932 and 1969 Cobb built the W. Montague Cobb Human Skeletal Collection, with anatomical, medical, and demographic records of 987 individuals and more than 700 preserved and documented skeletons. It is a unique record of the development and pathology of Washington, D.C.’s poorest residents. In 1992 the Cobb Collection became part of the reestablished Cobb Biological Anthropology Laboratory within the Department of Sociology and Anthropology of Howard’s College of Arts and Sciences. Its research now focuses on the remains from the recently discovered New York City African Burial Grounds.

Cobb was awarded more than 100 honors and citations during the course of his life, including the American Association of Anatomists’ highest award–the Henry Gray Award for outstanding contributions to anatomy. He was the recipient of numerous honorary degrees. The year after his death, Cobb was given the Distinguished Service Award for meritorious service in the science and art of medicine by the American Medical Association.

Dr. William Montague Cobb entered the Omega Chapter November 20, 1990 due to heart ailments and pneumonia, in a Washington hospital. Transcripts of interviews with Cobb and many of his papers are archived at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center of Howard University.