William Montague Cobb’s career from its inception paralleled nearly the entire history of professional physical anthropology in the United States. As a leading activist scholar in the Afro-American community and the only black physical anthropologist Ph.D. before the Korean War, Cobb was the sole representative of Afro-American perspectives in physical anthropology for many years. Dr. Cobb exemplified the orientation of the physical anthropologist of the 1930s. Grounded in anatomy and medicine prior to the maturing of a separate bioanthropological curriculum, Dr. Cobb was part of a generation that linked the “founding fathers” of American physical anthropology to all of its succeeding generations. Yet, he is unique not only for being the only professional Afro-American physical anthropologist in the early years of the discipline, but also for pioneering approaches and accomplishments in human biology and health. Dr. Cobb characterized himself as “marching to the beat of a different drummer”.
Dr. Cobb became the first Distinguished Professor of Anatomy at Howard University in 1969. He was Distinguished Professor Emeritus from 1973 until his death in 1990. In 1980 he received the Henry Gray Award, conferred by the American Association of Anatomists for outstanding contributions to the field of anatomy. He accrued over 100 other honors and citations, including many of paramount distinction. He served as president of the NAACP (1976-1982), the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (1957-1959), and the Anthropological Society of Washington (1949-1951). He also served as editor of the Journal of the National Medical Association for 28 years (1949-1977).
Dr. Cobb chaired the Department of Anatomy of Howard University College of Medicine from 1974-1969. He was the author of 1,100 publications on diverse topics and taught over 6,000 anatomy students. His influence as an organizer and advocate for health improvements and civil rights was felt and acknowledged by leaders in government, the military, the world of letters, medicine, and the general public.