Jeff Gaillard, M.A. (


W. Montague Cobb’s seminal treatise published in 1942 stresses the import of conducting research on the human biology of the African American. In this work he emphasizes the scientific importance of such studies and calls for the engagement of more African American scholars in this research. 

In June 1942, W. Montague Cobb published a very important treatise on the physical anthropology (also known as biological anthropology) of the African American in the United States in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Vol. XXIX, NO. 2. 114-223. Cobb stressed the importance of prosecuting research in the biological anthropology of Africans in America; specifically he states:

     In this crucial present, there is no need to emphasize anew the long and well acknowledged importance of accurate and comprehensive information on the biological qualities of the world’s largest minority, the thirteen million American Negroes of the United States (Cobb, p.114)

He sends out a call to those competent to heed the call and to wholeheartedly pursue this subject worthy of scientific inquiry. Cobb deftly presents the reader with a multitude of reasons of why this topic is significant and will yield valuable information beneficial to all scientists. He specifically feels that more African Americans should be trained and be involved in biological anthropological research but cites the many limitations that they face due to lack of financial resources, racialism, inadequate laboratories and limited, if any requisite deceased and biological samples at historically Black colleges and universities, and, the general public’s lack of interest in anthropological research as a whole, which does not help in soliciting funds for the scientific endeavor.    

Cobb meticulously lists all of the research that was currently being done at the time, concerning African Americans by citing researchers, locations of pertinent collections and the foci of the research. He also offers a critique of each research project and lists the value of the research but more importantly he highlights the shortcomings and offers useful insight and suggestions to make improvements in future research. He does not bother much with politics, only slightly when highlighting the recalcitrance within the academy, government and the general society at large-in their failure to more fervently embrace the valid scientific prosecution of African American human biology and the urgent need to train young African Americans in the many facets of life and natural sciences, in order to become effective researchers-able to produce and publish relevant scientific discourse.

Cobb is an excellent writer and is able to convey hard science and social science topics in a smooth literary form that is easily comprehensible to a lay reader. His prose invites curiosity and prompts the reader to want to know more about Africans in America-specifically by examining commonly held stereotypes and racist notions about the sexual organs of African American males and females, in addition, discussing at length, myths concerning African American athletic prowess. He is able to show via sound scientific examination and in some cases, personal research, that these “notions” such as “race,” penile and vaginal size, somatic traits, morphological and phenotypic features 
and athletic ability are not homogenous among Africans in America. An excellent example of Cobb’s skill to debunk racialist notions about Africans and to remain  scientifically objective without allowing his ethnicity (that of being an African American) to color his findings, is as follows:

                 It was advanced that the success of the Negro athletes was due to certain anatomical characters such as a long calcaneus or heel bone which afforded greater leverage to the calf muscles. The writer tested these suggestions on Jesse Owens at a time, when the athlete was an eminently superlative performer. He found that in all those characters presumptively associated with race or physical ability, Owens was Caucasoid rather than Negroid in type. Thus, his heel bone was relatively short, instead of long; his calf muscles had very long instead of short bellies; and his arches were high and strong instead of being low and weak. Still, popular interest in the subject will not be downed and the question remains of what is the physical basis for athletic ability. This requires an extensive body of new knowledge in the realm of physics, of anatomy and of physiology (Cobb, pp.168-169).

Cobb defers any further queries to a scientific approach and does not get caught up the       
hyperbole concerning issues of “race," which was quite fashionable at the time. Instead,
he constantly challenges his readers to allow science and not social construction of ideas, such as “race,” define the evidence. He presents the reader with an exhaustive lists of bibliographies from the period and in a surgical manner dissects the value of each, concerning the value with respect to biological anthropological research concerning African Americans. He does not discourage his audience from perusing any of the works or volumes that he cites but informs them on how to use them and quietly, points out, areas of improvement. Cobb was clearly a scientist ahead of his time and desperately wanted biological anthropology to become a respected and noble profession, so that young scientists might be encouraged to take up this scientific endeavor but also be able to earn a respectable living.

He points out the contributions of African Americans in biological anthropology, although they are few, and this is important to demonstrate that they are conducting valid scientific work in the area of the persistent problems facing Africans in America at this time in history, and not simply waiting for or looking for the majority population to seek answers to the so-called Negro problem(s). He is not simply concerned with “race” research but offers a litany of human biological concerns specific to Africans in America from sociological concerns to mortality rates. His challenge is for scientists to realize that Africans are humans and have the same health problems and daily concerns of life, as any other American citizen. He also examines research about African Americans published abroad and pushes for sound science within the academic literature. One would have found it extremely difficult to argue the facts and suggestions presented by a erudite man, such as Cobb, as it is apparent from his treatise that he is learned in the life and natural sciences, along with the social sciences.
Cobb was able to achieve a level of education and comfort of the sociology of knowledge that few persons today, especially during his lifetime would possess, let alone, be able to articulate as clearly as he did. His ideas are well thought out and emanate from a sincere place that challenges one to excel and to demonstrably improve upon what has been done thus far. He then leads the reader to the number of studies, which range from anthropometry to clinical research, many of which seem limited but he notes the import of thorough and broad research involving African Americans. He methodically lists each university and research facility that has or is doing any type of biological anthropology concerning African Americans and reviews each project therein and points out some of the findings that buttress the accepted inferior position of Blacks during this time. He was loud and clear that Africans needed to heed the call and take the lead in the research: “It would seem incapable of challenge that the major responsibility for the prosecution of future studies should, with greatest propriety, be borne by well trained Negro scientists…” (Cobb, p. 133). He goes on to comment on organizations and their shortcomings but highlights the efforts at the Atlanta Conferences under the direction Dr. W.E.B. DuBois and the foundation of student and faculty organizations at Howard University and the later sociological research centers that were developed at Howard and Fisk Universities, due to proper organization, mentoring and working together to maintain current studies in biological anthropology of African Americans. He then lays out the specific needs to maintain and further the research from sizeable research literature to scientific reference volumes. He maintained that “Physical anthropology is a biological subject, concerned with the study of human anatomy, physiology, ageing and pathology, from the standpoints of origin, evolution, comparative morphology, variation, genetics an ecology.” It was for these reasons that Cobb argued that laboratories be of the highest quality and provide requisite training, since many of the research centers at the time did not provide in class instruction. He also advocated the need for collaboration and internships in places that had collections and resources pertinent to furthering the knowledge base. Sadly, he reported that “an ideal laboratory for training and research in the physical anthropology of the Negro, with staff learned in the subject and with ample resources in human remains and living subjects, is not to be found” (Cobb, p. 142). He went on to offer a list concerning studies highlighting general objectives and needs, as follows:    

             Scientific justification of the study of the physical anthropology of the American Negro centers about four principal objectives: (1) inventory of the physical, mental, and ecological characters of a large segment of the national population; (2) registration of the genetic and environmental phenomena associated with the racial crossing which has produced the American Negro; (3) assessment of the biological quality of the hybrid; and (4) definition of the future possibilities of the Negro population in the light of all known facts and trends (Cobb, p. 143).

Cobb seemed astonished at how Africans in America were able to survive and flourish,
especially considering the deplorable conditions in which they lived. He stated: “Our anthropological interest is in whether his hardships have had a beneficial or deleterious effect upon his physical constitution” (Cobb, p. 181). He is acutely aware of the social policies that adversely affect Africans in America, when he briefly mentions the well known policy of Africans being the last hired and the first hired-yet through all of their hardships, they survive and this is of scientific inquiry for Cobb. He demonstrates his scientific interest in this subject, as follows:

              Certainly, from one point of view, the Negro has had to demonstrate more adaptability and hardihood than any other American group.He has survived the rigors of the capture, the middle passage, the social disruption and heterogeneous assortment in America, the involuntary servitude, the post-bellum catastrophes and the industrial migrations of recent years. Although many other factors have played a role, the question as to the degree to which a selection of the more fit elements has occurred during these struggles for survival is a very intriguing one, well worthy of special study (Cobb, pp. 181-182). 

Cobb knew that this area of knowledge was far from complete and poignantly stressed:
Yet, our knowledge is far from a desirable state of completeness in nearly every major aspect of interest” (Cobb, p. 185). He was not deterred by lack of funding and the myopia surrounding biological anthropology and the study of African Americans.

He has a blue print for success and provided a list of progressive measures to ensure the progression of biological anthropology with a special emphasis on the examination of Africans in America.  His legacy is something to not only admire but to emulate, since African Americans are still struggling to determine their destiny in the United States and continue to face social and health crises, that all too often, are not studied and remain an enigma, unnecessarily. Dr. Cobb left a plan of scientific action that, if followed, as suggested, will yield promising scientific results not only for African Americans but all Americans. ***

© W. Montague Cobb Research Laboratory

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