In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section William Montague Cobb

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Anthropology William Montague Cobb
Rachel Watkins
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 May 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0064


William Montague Cobb (b. 12 October 1904–d. 20 November 1990) was the first African American to receive a doctorate in both anatomy and physical anthropology. In addition to enhancing the teaching of anatomy with a core concentration in physical anthropology at Howard University, Cobb also used his training in biological anthropology to promote a clearer, nonracialized understanding of human biodiversity among the general public. Cobb’s work is equally known for responding to academic projects focused on racial typology. As such, Cobb conducted some of the first demographic analyses exposing the impact of racism on the health of African Americans and US citizens as a whole. Also a strong advocate of hospital integration, Cobb engaged in work toward abolishing separate but equal medical training, health care, and hospital provisions for underserved populations. During the 1940s, he represented the NAACP before the US Senate in testimony supporting a national health-insurance program. Throughout his career, Cobb held leadership positions in civic and professional organizations, including the National Medical Association and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. He also served as national president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1976 to 1982. Cobb’s legacy of teaching, scholarship, and activism impacted the medical careers of numerous African-American physicians, and his work made a vital contribution to research in public health and represented an early incarnation of biocultural syntheses in physical anthropology.


Manuscript collections are essential resources for locating documents including (but not limited to) speeches, pamphlets, and self-published materials on biological anthropology and medical history. More than published materials, Cobb’s manuscript collection and those of his colleagues illustrate the extent of his association with key figures in medicine and physical anthropology. Cobb’s family donated his papers to the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center on the campus of Howard University in Washington, DC, where they are available for review by appointment. A significant amount of materials pertaining to Cobb’s later career are also housed at the Schomburg Center for African American Research in New York City (part of the New York Public Library System). The Manuscripts and Archives Division possesses four boxes of material related to the CIBA-GEIGY (an earlier incarnation of the pharmaceutical company Novartis) Exceptional Black Scientists poster and video series.

  • Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard Univ.

    The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center (MSRC) is recognized as one of the world’s most comprehensive repositories for records on the history and culture of people of African descent in Africa, the Americas, and other parts of the world. Its collections include thousands of audio, visual, and documentary materials as well as artifacts. The Cobb Manuscript Collection consists of roughly forty boxes containing records of all aspects of his professional career and involvement in civic and political work.

  • Schomburg Center for African American Research, New York Public Library.

    Along with the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, the Schomburg Center for African American Research in black culture is one of the nation’s key repositories for the documentation of the history and culture of African descendants. Cobb was one of fifteen scientists whom the company honored between 1971 and 1986. Holdings include video footage, copies of posters, and records from interviews conducted with each honoree.

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