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Cobb, Nathan Augustus (1859–1932)

by C. J. King

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Nathan Augustus Cobb (1859-1932), plant pathologist, was born on 30 June 1859 at Spencer, Massachusetts, United States of America, only child of William Henry Cobb and his wife Jane, née Bigelow. His father was at various times a carpenter, millwright, sawmill-manager, factory foreman and farmer; working for him, Nathan learnt manual skills, and was educated at local schools during the winter term. At 14 he worked as farm labourer, then qualified as a schoolteacher and taught for two years at Spencer. In 1878-81 he attended Worcester County Free Institute of Industrial Science and from 1881 taught science at Williston Seminary, Easthampton. On 8 August 1881, probably at Spencer, he married 27-year-old Alice Vara Proctor, who interested him in botany and shared his love of drawing and painting; later he illustrated many of his own articles. In 1887 he studied in Germany and received a doctorate of philosophy from the University of Jena, then worked in Italy for the British Association for the Advancement of Science at its Naples Zoological Station.

After borrowing their fares, Cobb arrived in Sydney on 7 March 1889 with his wife and three children. Penniless, he wasted a year in petty jobs, but early in 1890 was appointed temporary professor of biology at the University of Sydney and from 1 August that year became pathologist in the new Department of Agriculture. From the outset 'the Doctor', as he was known, was given a free hand by H. C. L. Anderson.

At a time of depression and drought Cobb was faced with immense problems—rust in wheat, and a multiplicity of diseases in sugar-cane, farm crops, vines and fruit-trees, which involved research into a whole range of fungous, viral, bacterial, insect and parasitical diseases. His most immediate problem was with wheat. After the second meeting of the Intercolonial Conference on Rust in Wheat, held in Sydney in June 1891, William Farrer wrote to the department expressing his views, and the horizons of Cobb's own work widened. From 1892 he and Farrer collaborated in an experimental programme, including the detailed examination and identification of some 600 wheats that Farrer had cultivated. Cobb also personally directed hundreds of experiments at Wagga Wagga Experiment Farm.

A member of the main committees on grain rusts, he contributed greatly to their published reports. As chairman of the conference's ancillary committee on nomenclature, Cobb vigorously tried to tackle a situation where not only was the same name applied to different kinds of wheat, but the same wheat was known under several different names. By laborious examinations and assessments, made partly with a microscope in the field (often in blazing heat) and partly in the laboratory, he reduced the confused nomenclature to some kind of order, describing many of his observations in the Agricultural Gazette of New South Wales. He was a councillor of the Linnean Society of New South Wales in 1892-94 and contributed to its Proceedings, often on nematodes.

In 1898 Cobb decided to seek experience abroad and resigned. However he was appointed special commissioner to report upon the agricultural and other industries of America and Europe. He travelled extensively and represented the New South Wales government at the 1900 Congrès Internationale d'Agriculture in Paris. He returned to Sydney in 1901 and resumed his old position. His paper 'Universal nomenclature of wheat', published in the Agricultural Gazette in 1901-04, attracted world wide interest.

Cobb left Australia early in 1905, and until 1907 he organized, and was head of, the division of pathology and physiology at Experiment Station of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association in Honolulu. He moved to Washington in 1907 and joined the United States Department of Agriculture as agricultural technologist with its Bureau of Plant Industry and was later principal nematologist. He published prodigiously on sugar-cane, cotton and, later, on helminthology. An able technician throughout his life, he built dark-rooms and cameras, laboratory apparatus and microscopes. With an international scientific reputation, he was sometime president of the American Microscopical Society, the American Society of Parasitologists, the Washington Academy of Sciences and the Helminthological Society of Washington.

Survived by a son and four daughters, Cobb died of heart disease at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, on 4 June 1932. He was an affectionate family man in whom 'an exquisite mastery of technique and artistic skill was matched only by the mirror-like all-embracing quality of his mind'. His work was of 'economic importance as well as of permanent scientific value'.

Select Bibliography

  • Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 1 (New York, 1944)
  • Department of Agriculture (New South Wales), Annual Report, 1890-1904
  • Agricultural Gazette (New South Wales), 1-15 (1890-1904), and for publications
  • Asa Gray Bulletin, Spring 1957, and for publications
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 58 (1933)
  • Hunt Institute biographies (Australian Academy of Science Library).

Citation details

C. J. King, 'Cobb, Nathan Augustus (1859–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cobb-nathan-augustus-5697/text9629, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 21 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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