Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2012

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Former Dean of the College Jewel Plummer Cobb with Beverly Clark Prince '72 in Cobb's lab at Connecticut College. Photo courtesy of the Linda Lear Center for Special Collections and Archives.

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The power of a role model

The power of a role model

Biologist Jewel Plummer Cobb inspired a generation of Connecticut College students

by Patricia M. Carey
with research by Doe Boyle and Stan DeCoster


In 1969, when Dean of the College Gertrude Noyes retired, President Charles Shain made a bold move. He passed over longtime Dean of Freshmen Alice Johnson, who had expected to get the job, and hired Jewel Plummer Cobb, a 45-year-old African-American biology professor and cancer researcher at Sarah Lawrence College.

Over the next seven years, Cobb made her own bold moves — as an administrator, professor of zoology, researcher, and national advocate for women and minorities in the sciences. She established an innovative post-baccalaureate program to help minority students prepare for medical and dental school. Her tenure also created an institutional foundation for the decision in 2005 to re-imagine the dean of the College as its chief diversity officer. Perhaps most importantly, she provided a role model of achievement for students, some of whom are now in leadership positions at the College.

“Back in those days, we were among the first African-American students to arrive on campus in any numbers,” says Estella Johnson '75, a College trustee who recently retired as economic development director for the city of Cambridge, Mass. “To have a black leadership presence was very important for black and white students to see.”

Cobb remained at Connecticut College until 1976, when she became dean of Douglass College, the women's division of Rutgers University. Five years later, she was named president of California State University at Fullerton, where she served until 1990. In retirement, she moved to Cape Cod and continued to be active in many organizations, including the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole.

Today, Cobb lives in New Jersey, where she is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. She could not be interviewed for this article. Her former students and a few former colleagues hold her close in their memories, not only as an accomplished professional, but in other dimensions as well: avid sailor, risk-taking skier, style icon, single mother and generous friend.

Cobb's years on campus were pivotal for the College, as the administration attempted to implement coeducation and increase racial diversity at the same time. The first male freshmen arrived in Fall 1969 — 24 in all, including one African-American. The following year, there were 107 men in an incoming class of 487. The effort to attract students of color, begun in 1964, was also showing results. According to a talk Cobb gave in 1975, the number of incoming African-American freshmen increased from eight in September 1964, to 11 in 1967, to 34, half of them men, in 1972.

As the chief student affairs officer in a period of intense transition, Cobb had to find a balance between leading and managing change. “This college is still far from achieving what I feel is a totality of the black academic experience,” she wrote in 1970. “But we are aware of what needs to be done and are taking positive steps in the right direction.”

She told The Day of New London that she spent much of her first year learning “how committees work, the way departments are run.” She built a library of information about graduate and professional schools in her office and went into the residential houses to talk to students about graduate school and fellowship opportunities. She worked with a student committee to attract more faculty of color to the College, and she helped the College understand and respond to student demands for more involvement in College governance.

“It was a very rewarding experience for her,” says her son, Jonathan Cobb, who was 11 when he and his mother moved to New London. “She saw how much impact she could have on making the administration aware of students' social and political needs and interests.”

****

Jewel Isadora Plummer was born in 1924 in Chicago, the only child of physician Frank V. Plummer and Carribelle Cole Plummer, a physical education teacher who studied interpretative dance.

Frank's father, Robert Francis Plummer, had been born into slavery and graduated from Howard University. He was a pharmacist who owned several drug stores in Washington, D.C.

As a student at Cornell University, Frank Plummer was inducted into the first pledge class of Alpha Phi Alpha, the black fraternity that would later count among its members Martin Luther King Jr. and W.E.B. Du Bois. He named his daughter in honor of the fraternity's founders, known as the seven “jewels.” Her middle name honors Isadora Duncan, the founder of modern dance.

Cobb viewed a science career as a lifelong opportunity to indulge her childhood curiosity. As a small child, she liked to mix household products such as “bath lotion, vinegar, soap powder, cleanser and catsup” in sealed bottles. She would hide these concoctions under the clawfoot bathtub for a few weeks, checking back to see how they evolved.

She grew up with an extensive home library including science books and medical journals. Dinner conversation often revolved around her father's work at Provident Hospital, which served the African-American community, and examples of African-American achievement, from pioneering heart surgeon Daniel Hale Williams to her mother's brother Robert Cole, a well-known composer of musical theater. The weekly Chicago Defender chronicled the family's social engagements and annual trips to Idlewild, Mich., a popular vacation spot for affluent African-Americans.

Even in this environment of privilege, however, segregation and discrimination were never far away. Cobb started her education at a predominantly white elementary school, but, after a racially motivated redistricting, was transferred to an overcrowded, dilapidated school in another neighborhood. The University of Chicago sent its African-American medical students and interns to Provident Hospital for training because, Cobb later wrote, “It was unthinkable then that a black medic would touch a white patient.”

In a high-school biology class, Cobb wrote, she “took one look through the microscope and a whole new world opened up.” After high school, she enrolled at the University of Michigan. But while the biology curriculum was top-notch, African-American students were not allowed to live in the dormitories. Nor were they welcome in the most popular restaurants or the largest fraternities and sororities. Fed up, Cobb transferred to historically black Talladega College in Alabama and graduated in 1944 with a bachelor's degree in biology.

Cobb earned her master's degree and doctorate in cell physiology at New York University, writing her thesis on the skin pigment melanin and its relation to the fast-growing skin tumors known as melanomas. In 1950, she won a post-doctoral fellowship with Dr. Louis Wright, chief of surgery at Harlem Hospital and a pioneer in chemotherapy research. In this and subsequent appointments at the University of Illinois, NYU and Sarah Lawrence, she learned new techniques for growing and analyzing human tissue. She also collaborated and co-published on research that compared the impact of chemotherapy agents on patients, referred to as in vivo, and on cancer cells grown in vitro, in the laboratory.

In 1954, she married Roy Cobb, who worked in the insurance industry, and Jonathan, now a physician in New Jersey, was born in 1957. Jewel and Roy Cobb divorced in 1964.

****

Cobb's arrival at Connecticut College coincided with a growing emphasis on research by science faculty. She established her laboratory in New London Hall and continued to study the growth and morphology of cancer cells. As her administrative duties became more pressing, she formed the habit of doing lab work in the early morning, and she mentored a succession of undergraduate assistants, male and female, black and white.

Lynn Cooley '76, who is white, worked with Cobb in the summer of 1974. Today, as a professor of genetics at Yale Medical School, Cooley does research in developmental cell biology using fruit flies. “(Cobb's) lab taught me how to dissociate cardiac tissue from chicken embryos, culture cells in dishes, and film — with actual film — the beating of heart cells in vitro,” Cooley says. “It was a transformative experience for me since it helped me realize how much I love experimental science.”

In 1973, Cobb established a one-year post-baccalaureate, pre-medical program at the College for students of color who had graduated from other institutions. The program, reportedly the first of its kind in New England, financed a year of science courses plus counseling, tutoring and other support services. In a 1989 Sage journal article titled “A Life In Science: Research and Service,” Cobb wrote that the program enrolled about 40 students in six years, of whom 90 percent went on to medical or dental school at universities that included Yale, Rutgers and George Washington.

****

“Dean Cobb is always on our minds, particularly when we come to campus,” says Timothy Yarboro '75, speaking for himself and other African-American students of the era.

Yarboro remembers his surprise at meeting Cobb. “I didn't know there were minorities in positions like hers,” he says. He was planning to major in anthropology, but Cobb had other ideas. “She came to me and said, 'You should be applying to medical school.'”

Today, Yarboro is a physician with a family practice in Arlington, Va. “Had I not met her, I would not have gone to medical school,” he says. “I would not have become a doctor. Because of her, I knew it was possible.”

Her influence extended beyond students in the sciences. Kevon Copeland '76 was a first-generation college student. “I thought Jewel Plummer Cobb was the leader of the College,” he says.

Copeland is now a senior business development specialist for the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh and a member of the College's Board of Trustees. “Seeing this regal African-American woman, a woman of science, on campus made a strong statement to me about the school I had decided to attend; that I, by association, was valued,” he says. “She spoke to me on campus, so I was visible.”

Cobb was strong and outspoken. She set high expectations, particularly for students of color, and in the words of several people who knew her, “she did not suffer fools.”

Estella Johnson, who worked in Cobb's office, once took time off during exams and remembers Cobb's reaction. “She called me up and said, 'Where are you? I expected you to be here.' She didn't let you off.”

“She wouldn't go along just to get along,” says Robert Hampton, who joined the College as an instructor of sociology in 1974 and became the second African-American dean of the College, in 1987. “In my experience with Jewel, it might be called tough love. She was not one to take excuses.”

She opposed the Vietnam War and spoke at anti-war demonstrations in New London. She was also a fervent feminist. In a 1971 commencement address at Wheaton College, she called on American colleges to explore “the tremendous body of knowledge that lies untapped in the whole area of women's studies.” In 1975, after chairing a conference on minority women in the sciences, she wrote that the women in attendance had “the double oppression of sex and race or ethnicity plus the third oppression in the chosen career, science.”

Cobb emphasized the commonality of the women's movement and the civil rights movement and urged the two groups to collaborate. But her top priority was clear in a poignant 1971 interview with The Day: “Women's lib aims to raise the level of female consciousness among females,” she said. “The black movement is composed of people who need no consciousness-raising to know they are black and the underdog.”

Faculty and staff reactions to Cobb ranged from supportive to critical. One emeritus faculty member says her impact on campus culture was minimal. “In my memory, Jewel tried but never really got a sense of what the College was like and therefore was not very influential,” he says.

Some African-American students wanted Cobb to be a more vocal advocate for minority students. Jonathan Cobb says she was “between a rock and hard place,” trying to support students of color while representing the interests of the entire student body.

For example, in May 1971 when 25 members of the Afro-American Society barricaded themselves in Fanning Hall until President Shain agreed to recruit more black students, she did not comment publicly. But after the crisis, she was a key driver of the Commission on Racial Relations, which won a resolution from the Board of Trustees to hire more black faculty.

“I think she did as well as she could do by us as minority students,” Estella Johnson says.

Timothy Yarboro agrees. “She wasn't just the dean of minorities,” he says. “She had all the weight and gravitas of the entire college.”

Numerous press releases and news articles document her involvement in outside organizations for the advancement of women's education and black education, for state and local initiatives, and as a member of several corporate and nonprofit boards. She received many honors and awards and was a frequently invited speaker.

One of her most influential appointments was in 1974, when she became the first woman of color appointed on the National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation (NSF). She immediately established an ad hoc committee on women and minorities in the sciences, which subsequently became a standing committee.

The College's Science Leaders Program, funded by the NSF, can be seen as a direct descendent of Cobb's decades on the National Science Board advocating for underrepresented groups. The College's first cohort of 17 Science Leaders graduated this spring.

****

Although her public persona could be severe, in private Cobb showed a very different side.

She often hosted dinner parties at her home, a College-owned house on Williams Street. “All of us would forever be smiling, laughing and joking,” says K. Michael Talbot, who earned a master's degree in history from the College in 1976 and became friends with Cobb.

She socialized with a group of young faculty including Professor of Physics Tom Ammirati and his wife, Theresa, now the College's dean of studies. “She may have been aloof with strangers, but in our relationship she was fun and funny,” Theresa recalls. “She was warm, generous, a great cook and a great poker player.”

Slender and attractive, Cobb was known for her fashionable clothes. In graduate school at New York University, she belonged to the Society for the Prevention of Dowdiness among Women Scientists. “She had a presence,” Johnson says. “I remember someone saying that Jewel Cobb 'traversed a room.'”

Earl-Rodney Holman '76 was at her house one day and saw a Bergdorf-Goodman advertisement Cobb had clipped from the New York Times for a designer outfit she was planning to buy. “That set in motion my interest in fashion, advertising, retail sales and marketing that became my career direction many years later,” says Holman, a fashion and retail consultant in Washington, D.C.

Cobb went out of her way make young faculty feel welcome. She often invited Robert Hampton and his young family to Sunday brunch. Similarly, Scott Warren, now the Jean C. Tempel '65 Professor Emeritus of Botany, remembers Cobb as “very gracious. We were both doing tissue culture. She took an interest in my work and asked me about it.”

Cobb's generosity led to Estella Johnson's first job, as an academic adviser in the office of the dean of arts and sciences at the University of Rochester. “Jewel met the dean at a conference and came back with the job description,” Johnson says. “The interview was in Boston at the Copley Plaza Hotel. Jewel gave me gas money to get to the interview.”

When Kevon Copeland's family came from Pittsburgh for his graduation, he hosted and cooked a dinner at the home of Charles Chu, professor of Chinese. He invited Cobb, but thought she would be too busy to attend. Instead, “she engaged my grandmothers, parents, brothers and neighbors from home throughout the evening,” he says. “My family, particularly my mother, valued her kindness. That evening propelled me after graduation as an alumnus committed to Connecticut College.”

****

After Cobb left the College, she seemed to fade quickly from the collective campus memory.

Alice Johnson succeeded her as dean of the College, and Cobb's post-baccalaureate program ended a few years later. She was briefly referenced in Noyes' 1982 book, “A History of Connecticut College,” and not at all in Paul Marthers' “Eighth Sister No More,” a comprehensive history of the transition to coeducation published in 2010.

In 1994, President Claire Gaudiani '66 bestowed an honorary degree on Cobb, and last year the College's Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity honored her at a Centennial conference on diversity. Still, many alumni of the era feel that the College has not sufficiently recognized Cobb's contributions.

Trustees Johnson and Copeland represent one of the most visible aspects of her legacy — a life-changing impact on individual students. Jocelyn Briddell, the College's dean of student life, knew Cobb at Douglass College, when Briddell was a student there. “She was always asking me questions,” Briddell recalls. “I said that I didn't know what I wanted to do in life. And she said, 'The next time I talk with you, you will know.' And she was right. She was always there for me.”

If Cobb were to visit campus today, she would see a very visible difference in the campus community, which this year encompassed 19 percent students of color and 24 percent faculty of color. Under the leadership of President Lee Higdon and Armando Bengochea, who holds the combined position of dean of the College and chief diversity officer, the College has broadened the definition of diversity and introduced an array of related initiatives, including the establishment of an LGBTQ Resource Center, a partnership with the Posse Foundation to recruit inner-city students, participation in the Mellon Mays Foundation Undergraduate Fellowship program, and expansion of Unity House staff and programming.

Equally dramatic changes are taking place in the classroom. Over the past five years, academic departments, including English, French, economics and sociology, have worked to infuse their courses and curricula with diverse and global perspectives.

Over near the Arboretum there's another transformation, coincidental but supremely appropriate: The wood-frame house at 740 Williams St., where Cobb lived for seven years, is now home to the gender and women's studies department and the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity.

Watch a video about Jewel Plummer Cobb's life.


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