COBB, WILLIAM MONTAGUE (12 October 1904-20 November 1990) was an AFRICAN AMERICAN activist-scholar who protested scientific racism, promoted African American healthcare, and tried to develop Black research; in 1932, he was the first Black-American to earn a PhD in Physical Anthropology, from WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY.

Cobb was born in Washington, D.C. in 1904, to a Black middle-class family. His family was literate; his father, an Alabama native, ran a print-shop, his grandfather had been a tax collector, and his mother hailed from an old family of Massachusetts free-Blacks. This afforded him both contact with influential African Americans and literacy from a young age, rare privileges at a time when African Americans were severely disenfranchised. 

As he recalls, even before he could read, Cobb was inspired by drawings in a book on human diversity that showed variation without prejudice. But this experience of seeing ‘racial’ equality contrasted sharply with Cobb’s lived reality of White segregation and Black class-conflict. Cobb couldn’t go to the closest elementary school because it was for Whites, his father made a point to show him how much better funded White institutions, like theaters, were than Black ones, and he had to teach himself to box to defend against class violence in his own neighborhood. 

Cobb graduated from Dunbar, one of two prominent Black D.C. High schools, in 1921, earned his Bachelor’s of Arts from Amherst in 1925, and finished his MD at Howard, a historically Black institution, in 1929. At the same time he was finishing his degree, Howard was shifting from a mostly White, to a mostly Black professorship. The new school president, Numa Adams, wanted Cobb to join the new medical faculty; Cobb declared that he would, if he could study and teach anatomy.

It was difficult to find a school willing to accept African American students in 1929, but Adams was able to arrange for Cobb to study under WINGATE TODD, an anatomist and dentist at Western Reserve University. At this time, the school had a good reputation among the educated Black-’elite’: its sixth president CHARLES THWING was an active NAACP supporter, and it had recruited 75 Black students in 1929, with an additional 10 graduates - large numbers for the time. Under Todd, Cobb studied Physical Anthropology with a focus on anatomical development, which they treated as central to their approaches. This newly developing field was split into two broad factions: the “Washington-Harvard Axis,” and the “Boasian School”. The former, then championed by prominent eugenicist Ales Hrdlicka, was the more prominent and argued that human race was hierarchical and identifiable by skull. Both Todd and Cobb fell closer to the Boasian school, arguing that important human traits were shaped by life conditions more than biological affinities; Todd even had a set of skeletons he called ‘the humiliators’, because they were regularly racially misidentified. 

Cobb’s dissertation, Human Archives, was finished in 1932. It was a detailed study of Todd’s skeletal collection, held by the CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY. After finishing it, Cobb went back to Howard, but continued research in Cleveland until the end of the decade. Many of his publications were on cranial formation, but his most famous from this period was a full-body examination of Clevelander JESSE OWENS, Race and the Runners. The article was prompted by racial discourse on Owens’ success at the 1936 Olympics, and argued that this was not due to ‘Negroid’ racial traits, many of which Owens did not possess, but his training regimen. In general, Cobb argued, none of the American sprinters actually conformed with the Anthropological categories prescribed by their ‘races’.

Among contemporary physical anthropologists, Cobb, like Todd and Boas, was a relative progressive for his belief that life circumstances affected physical development more than ‘race’. But Cobb was set apart by his particular interest in African Americans, as subjects of study and as a group to empower for their own research. Cobb’s collection of about 1,000 human remains, stored at Howard in Washington, D.C., paid close attention to life experiences and occupation, which he thought would inform the physical features of the remains; the project was seen as a start to an African American scholarship on Physical Anthropology that could counteract the mainstream school of the 1930s. Unfortunately, this did not properly manifest. Cobb also understood the importance of ‘Science Communication’, and was interested in broadcasting his findings to the public. As a result, some of his most influential works were cited by contemporary Newspapers.


Justin Evans

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