During an era of discrimination and segregation, Dr. William Montague Cobb fought racism with science.
Cobb was a doctor, an anthropologist, a teacher, an author, an editor, a crusader for civil rights, and so much more.
"It's amazing how many things he kept going at the same time," said Dr. Edward Cornwell, a trauma surgeon who considers Cobb a mentor. Cornwell is the former chair of the department of surgery at Howard University's College of Medicine in Washington, D.C.
"His intellect was just otherworldly, and his pioneering efforts extended to multiple applications of his scientific and medical knowledge," Cornwell said.
Consider these highlights from Cobb's resume:
– Medical degree from Howard, and a doctorate in physical anthropology – the first African American in the country to earn that degree – from what is now Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
– Professor of anatomy at Howard for nearly half a century, much of that time as department chair. He also amassed one of the world's leading collections of skeletons for scientific study.
– Pioneer in the field of physical anthropology, which focuses on population origin, evolution and diversity, and president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists from 1957 to 1959.
– President of the National Medical Association, a leading organization of Black physicians, and editor of its journal from 1949 to 1977.
– President of the NAACP, the nation's oldest civil rights organization, from 1976 to 1982.
– Author of five books and more than 1,000 articles in scholarly and popular publications.
Then put those achievements against a backdrop of their times, when Black people were barred from many universities and other institutions, Black doctors were prohibited from interning or practicing at many hospitals, and Black scholars battled false scientific contentions that their race made them intellectually inferior.
Cobb, who died in 1990 at age 86, "was an exemplar during Jim Crow of the absolute equality of Black people," said Dr. Michael Blakey, a professor of anthropology, Africana Studies and American Studies at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. "He demonstrated African American excellence in science, he demonstrated that science and activism can empower each other, and he demonstrated the brilliance of African America in the way he led his own life."
Cobb was born in 1904 in Washington, D.C., where his father ran a printing business. He graduated from Amherst College in Massachusetts, earned his medical degree from Howard and a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve, before spending most of his career at Howard. Cobb estimated that he helped train more than 6,000 physicians.
Alongside the professional accomplishments was a focus on civil rights. One of Cobb's notable early works, a 1936 article titled "Race and Runners," dispelled the arguments that U.S. Olympic champion Jesse Owens' success was somehow due to African Americans' physical superiority and intellectual inferiority.
"Cobb was showing what (19th-century African American leader) Frederick Douglass said 100 years before," said Blakey, who co-wrote a biography of Cobb in 2021. "It's not the biology that determines one's place in society. It's the circumstances in society that determines their biology and their status."
Cobb spent a lifetime pushing to improve those circumstances, exposing unequal levels of health care for white and Black people, and campaigning to integrate medical facilities and provide equal opportunities for Black doctors and patients.
In 1957, Cobb organized the Imhotep Conference on Hospital Integration to document segregation and press for change. The conference, named for an ancient Egyptian deity traditionally regarded as a physician, continued annually until the 1964 Civil Rights Act mandated equal access to public facilities that received federal funds, including hospitals.
"His efforts in addressing health care disparities were every bit as contributory as his efforts in anatomy and anthropology," Cornwell said.
Blakey said that while Cobb was a leading figure in African American medical circles, he was often the sole Black representative at white-dominated meetings and conferences.
"He was working between those two worlds," Blakey said. "No matter what he thought, he was collegial and gentlemanly."
In 1955, Cobb became a member of the American Heart Association's board of directors.
Blakey said Cobb's achievements, and his battle for acceptance, helped pave the way for Black scholars and medical professionals who followed him.
"That generation did its job," he said.
Cobb and his wife, Hilda, who died in 1976, had two daughters. A Washington Post story about Cobb's death described him as "a persistent and eloquent spokesman in behalf of many civil rights causes" and "a historian of Blacks in medicine."
Cornwell said Cobb is one of several luminaries in Howard history whose legacies remain an important part of its medical school. The Cobb Institute, founded in 2004 and named in his honor, promotes research and advocacy aiming to eliminate racial and ethnic health disparities.
Blakey and Cornwell, both of whom spent much time with Cobb in his later years, said he remained sharp and engaged, and was not bitter about the obstacles he faced as an African American.
"He was too busy to be bitter," Cornwell said.