N. A. Cobb

Rev: 01/01/2020

Nathan Augustus Cobb was born June 30, 1859, the only son of William Henry and Jane A. Cobb (née Brigelow), at Spencer, Massachusetts. William Cobb worked as a carpenter, in a sawmill, and as a farmer. Nathan Cobb had limited formal schooling, but his young (and later) life consisted of myriad jobs, positions and experiences.

From age 14, he helped support himself and his mother by working as a farm laborer.  At 17, he became a groundskeeper and stable boy.  He bought a microscope to facilitate his interests in biology and the environment. In 1877, at 18, he passed the examination to become a teacher in the public school system in Spencer, Mass.  A year later, he commenced studying chemistry at Worcester County Free Institute of Industrial Science, graduating in 1881.  Following that, he became Professor of natural science at Williston Seminary, Easthampton, Mass. (1881-1887).

In 1887, Cobb moved to Jena, Germany, where he obtained his PhD in 1888 studying under Ernst Häckel. His thesis was on new nematode species, including a description of  Ascaris kükenthalii from a Beluga whale. After the PhD, he worked in oceanographic research, then departed for Australia in 1889. He collected marine nematodes during the voyage to Australia.

Initially unable to find employment in science in Australia, Cobb sold oil, watches and soap for an importer. He also designed newspaper advertisements for the products that included chemical analyses conducted in his home laboratory.

In 1890, Cobb was appointed plant pathologist in the New South Wales Department of Agriculture.  He worked on wheat varieties and wheat rusts, but also on myriad other problems in vegetable and sugarcane. He continued study of nematodes in his spare time.  By 1897, a customized laboratory was built at Wagga Experimental Farm for his wheat research.  Between 1898 and 1901 he was appointed Special Commissioner on Agriculture to visit and report on the state of agricultural technology in Europe and the U.S.  Upon his return to Australia, Cobb found that he had been replaced in the wheat research program.  Although he continued to work as a plant pathologist, he began to seek other opportunities.

In 1905, Cobb accepted a position as plant pathologist for the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association at the Experiment Station in Honolulu.  After 2 years, in 1907, he moved to a position as Agricultural Technologist with the USDA Bureau of Plant Industry in Washington, DC.  There he worked on standardizing grading systems for cotton and on storage and processing methods.  In 1915, he was relieved of his duties, apparently for recommendations he made at a meeting that were not approved by his administrators.   Instead, Cobb was reassigned as Nematologist in the Bureau of Plant Industry.

His work as Nematologist with the Bureau of Plant Industry probably contributed most to Cobb's recognition as the "Father of U.S. Nematology".  He successfully convinced the USDA to establish a Dicision of Nematology and he argued for the distinction between Nematology and Helminthology. He was less successful in his arguments for the use of the word "nema" rather than "nematode". Cobb conducted research on plant-feeding nematodes associated with many crops and continued his studies on the marine nematodes. During this period, Cobb collaborated with scientific illustrator William Chambers who contributed to artistic renditions of nematodes.  Cobb himself was a gifted illustrator and artist.

N.A. Cobb reached retirement age of 65 in 1924 and was given a 5-year contract extension to continue his work.  During that time period he served as president of the American Society of Parasitologists. A further 3-year extension of his appointment was terminated by his death at age 72 in 1932.  Cobb died of a heart attack while in Johns Hopkins Hospital, Maryland, for an annual physical examination.

Throughout his career, N.A. Cobb sought improvements in technology and instrumentation.  He developed methods to desiccate and stain nematodes, and modifications of  photographic equipment.  His major focus was in the improvement, adjustment, and light sources for microscopes, icluding development of the camera lucida. Even now, important nematode specimens are mounted on "Cobb's slides" between two coverslips.  The slides allow observation of the specimen from both sides and minimize refractive interference of the image.

N.A. Cobb was an extremely productive scientist, a keen observer, and a prolific writer.  His bibliography includes some 568 publications (Spenneman, 2003).

Family History

Married Alice Vara Procter in 1881.

1882 son Russell

born; Russell died in 1884 (age 2).

1884 daughter Margaret Vara


1885 son Victor


1887 son Roger


1889 daughter Frieda


1891 daughter Ruth


1892 daughter Dorothy


1901 son Roger died (age 14).

          1932 N.A. Cobb died (age 72), survived by his wife and five children.


Buhrer, E.M. 1969. Nathan Augustus Cobb (1859-1932), a tribute. Journal of Nematology 1:2-3.

Hall, M.C. Nathan Augustus Cobb. Journal of Parasitology 19:1-4.

Spennemann, D.H.R. 2003. Nathan Augustus Cobb Plant Pathologist. A Bibliography of his work. Albury, N.S.W. : Retrospect.


Return to Pioneers Menu

Go to Nemaplex Main Menu