John Nathan Cobb, the man, not the ship

John N. Cobb

John N. Cobb

We here at the blog have written a great deal about the R/V John N. Cobb, but it occurs to us that readers might be interested in the human being behind the boat. He was an interesting man, a self-taught naturalist, writer, photographer, and the founder of the School of Fisheries at the University of Washington.

John Nathan Cobb (1896-1930) was one of twelve children born to a railroad engineer and his wife in Oxford, N.J. His first job, at the age of 16, was with a newspaper and he rose to become an editor. He passed a Civil Service examination in 1895 that qualified him as a typist and stenographer for the U.S. government. He accepted a position as clerk in Washington, D.C., with the statistical division of the U.S. Fish Commission. Within a year, he was appointed a field agent and his career in fisheries began.

The job called for him to travel throughout the Eastern seaboard, collecting statistics on the fish and shellfish catch. In 1901 he was assigned to investigate the fisheries of Hawaii, a project that put him in touch with David Starr Jordan. When the Fish Commission refused to transfer him to the West Coast in 1912, Cobb went to work for a San Francisco fish company. The following year, he began writing for Pacific Fisherman, the Seattle-based trade publication owned by Miller Freeman. Cobb stayed four years, and he continued to publish scientific work. He helped found the Pacific Fisheries Society in Seattle, patterned after the American Fisheries Society.
In 1913, Hugh M. Smith, the Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries,

A newspaperman, Cobb was also an avid photographer

A newspaperman, Cobb was also an avid photographer

delivered a paper to the American Fisheries Society lamenting that professional training in fisheries was available in Ireland, France, and Japan, but not in the U.S. There was not a single American university or college “where even the rudiments of an education in fishery technique may be obtained,” despite the fact that one out of every 80 individuals in the country was directly dependent on the fishing industry.

The following year, Smith suggested to the University of Washington that a school of fisheries be established to equip young men and women “for practical work in the service of the federal government, the various states, and private establishments having to do with artificial propagation, the curing and marketing of fishery products, and the administration of the fishing industry.”[1]

Founded in 1862, the University of Washington was already offering courses in ichthyology through the Zoology Department, but supporters wanted an actual fisheries school. They included Miller Freeman, publisher of Pacific Fisherman, and Trevor Kincaid, head of the university’s Zoology Program. Kinkaid presented a paper to the Pacific Fisheries Society outlining a proposed program. The organizational structure was modeled on the world renowned Imperial Fisheries Institute in Japan, where practical instruction and research had been underway since 1897. Kincaid suggested a two-year program with a concentration of classes in administration, technology or fish culture during the second year. Six years later, the school was established in 1919, with John N. Cobb (1868-1930) as its director.


The Cobb launching, BCF photo

Cobb laid out his vision for the school in 1920, not to train fishermen or scientists, but something in between, “men of executive ability with a thorough understanding of the fisheries.” According to biologist J. Richard Dunn, Cobb’s approach to the school reflected his experience with the fishing industry and reflected the practical needs of the commercial industry.

It would be a program in applied fisheries science and management. For Cobb, the salmon industry needed scientists, but it also needed men to run the fish companies and manage the growing complexity of the annual Alaskan fishery. The faculty remained small, with a great deal of turnover, probably the result of the low salaries.

There were two tracks of study, fish culture and fisheries technology. Enrollment was strong during the first decade, ranging from 30 to 117 students a year. The first graduating class was in 1922, and the first Master of Science degree in 1924. By 1928, he could boast that 40 graduates had found work in some branch of the fisheries.

When the R/V John N. Cobb was built in 1950, there could have been little disagreement that the vessel be named after the man who did so much to establish West coast fisheries research.

[1] Robert R. Stickney, Flagship: A History of the Fisheries at the University of Washington (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1989), 1.

[1] J. Richard Dunn. “John Nathan Cobb (1868-1930): Founding Director of the College of Fisheries, University of Washington, Seattle” Marine Fisheries Review 65, no. 3 (2003): 5.


About finleyc

I'm a writer and a historian of science. I'm interested in the intersection of science and policy in the oceans, and especially around fishing.
This entry was posted in boat building, Dayton Lee Alverson, Environmental History, Exploratory Fishing Base, fisheries science, Fishing, History of Science, History of Technology, Maritime History, Pacific Fishing History Project, R/V John N. Cobb and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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