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The American Association of Anatomists serves as the professional home for an international community of biomedical researchers and educators focusing on the structural foundation of health and disease. AAA advances anatomical science through research, education, and professional development.

Award Honors Dr. W.M. Cobb, Recognizes Promising Anatomy Researchers

American Association of Anatomists Names Morphological Sciences Award in Honor of Pioneering Scientist

June 19, 2019

ROCKVILLE, MD—The Board of Directors of the American Association of Anatomists (AAA) honors Dr. William Montague Cobb, naming an early-career investigator award after the pioneering scientist. The newly-named W.M. Cobb Award in Morphological Sciences will honor his legacy with its first recipient in 2020.

An AAA member for three decades, Dr. Cobb received the Association’s highest honor for unique and meritorious contributions to and achievements in anatomical sciences—the Henry Gray Scientific Achievement Award—in 1980. He was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in Physical Anthropology and authored 1,100 publications, using scientific methods to debunk racist ideas about human anatomy.

In 1932, Dr. Cobb began collecting and studying the skeletons and anatomical records of African Americans to demonstrate the physical impact that racism had on African Americans and to offer scientific evidence that African Americans are not physically or mentally inferior because of their race. Four years later, he published the article “Race and Runners” in The Journal of Health and Physical Education to dispute the idea that Jesse Owens, a quadruple gold medalist in the 1936 Olympics, was a superior runner thanks to some innate African-American physical prowess. Through this research, Dr. Cobb successfully demonstrated that race has no bearing on physical or mental ability.

Dr. Cobb earned an M.D. from Howard University, where he later chaired the anatomy department and instructed 6,000 anatomy students. He was Howard’s first Distinguished Professor of Anatomy, editor of the Journal of the National Medical Association (NMA) for 28 years, as well as president of the NMA, NAACP, and American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA). Among more than 100 accolades in his lifetime, he was an American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow.

According to the AAPA, Cobb created infrastructure and opportunity for African Americans in science, where little existed at the time. He valued systematic human skeletal collection and—unlike some prominent scientists of the era—recognized that studying the effects of environment and behavior were critical to understanding human skeletal variation, rather than pinning such differences to race. Dr. Cobb’s research and leadership remain vital to scientific and social debates on race in America. The Cobb Research Lab at Howard and The Cobb Institute at NMA continue his work.

“For his numerous contributions to anatomy, anthropology, science, and social justice, Dr. Cobb’s impact is enduring,” said AAA President Dr. Rick Sumner of Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center. “The Board agreed naming this award in his honor was a fitting inspiration for those early in their anatomy careers engaging in meaningful scientific research.”

Originally established in 2008, the newly-named W.M. Cobb Award in Morphological Sciences recognizes investigators in the early stages of their careers who have made important contributions to biomedical science through research in the morphological sciences, as broadly defined, and have demonstrated remarkable promise of future accomplishments. One winner may be named each calendar year and receives recognition including a $1,000 honorarium and free membership in the Association, along with registration and travel support to attend the Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology where the award and plaque are presented.