CONTRARY TO what many seem to think, there has always been a grand corps of native Washingtonians whose history, home-town ties and roster of high achievers matches that of any other American city. If there is a special quality to the honor roll in Washington, it is in the wealth of black pioneers -- men and women who had to break racial barriers on their way to distinction. Prominent on this list is W. Montague Cobb, whose exceptional rise from modest beginnings to the top ranks of American men and women of letters was an experience shared by generations of his disciples. Dr. Cobb, professor emeritus of anatomy at Howard University, a past president of the NAACP, author, historian and musician, died last week at the age of 86 -- after a career that helped prepare more than 6,000 black physicians over 40 years of teaching at Howard.
That Dr. Cobb did not limit his interests to medicine and the classroom but also became an eloquent advocate, organizer and battler for civil rights was rooted in the segregation of his native city, where he early on refused to accept inferior academic status. He attended Dunbar High School, went on to Amherst College on a scholarship, received a medical degree from Howard and earned a doctorate in anatomy from what is today Case Western Reserve University. During his decades of teaching at Howard, Dr. Cobb was the constant recipient of awards and holder of many special offices, including the presidency of the National Medical Association, which is the principal organization of black physicians in the country. He also was the editor of that association's journal and a president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, the Medico-Chirurgical Society of the District of Columbia and the Washington Society for the History of Medicine.
Dr. Cobb's involvement in the quest for civil rights extended naturally to local affairs in the worst pre-home-rule years of colonial rule over the District of Columbia. He served on dozens of citizen advisory committees to the District government -- a familiar face at civic meetings, cultural events and local gatherings right into his final days. As can happen, his successes in fighting for social change helped create generations of Howard students who took the cue and in 1969, boycotted medical school classes to protest what they believed were outdated ways of doing things. It was then that Dr. Cobb stepped down as chairman of the anatomy department and was awarded the rank of distinguished university professor.
Proud man that he was, Dr. Cobb was not an intellectual showoff. He would remind people that "I'm just Monty Cobb, the painter's son." But to those he taught, led, entertained and befriended, Monty Cobb will be remembered as a special figure in the history that he first studied and then helped to shape significantly.