The University of North Carolina Herbarium has
catalogued about 170 specimens collected by William Battle Cobb, who usually
signed specimen labels as “W. B. Cobb.”
Most specimens are fungi collected in Orange County, though a handful
of vascular plant specimens have been catalogued as well. As more of our
collections are databased, without doubt more specimens
collected by W. B. Cobb will be found.
William Battle Cobb was born in Cambridge,
Massachusetts on 23 November 1891 to Collier Cobb and Mary Lindsey Battle
Cobb. William had two younger
siblings, Collier Cobb, Jr. (b. 1893)
and Mary Louisa Cobb (b. 1899).
William Battle Cobb’s father, Collier Cobb
(b. 21 March 1862 on Mount Auburn Plantation, Wayne County, North Carolina)
was educated at Wake Forest (1877-1880) and the University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill (Class of 1882). He
earned a B. A. in geology from Harvard – Lawrence Scientific School in 1889
and then an M.A. from that same institution in 1894. Collier Cobb taught
briefly at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston University before
returning to North Carolina in 1892 to be an instructor of geology at the
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Collier Cobb became chair of the
Geology Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill the
following year, and served in that capacity until his death in 1934. 1,2 Cobb’s
interest in photography led him to build a darkroom in his home, and his extensive
collection of glass plates and photographic prints, the Collier Cobb
Photographic Collection , is curated by the University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill. 2
Mary Lindsey Battle, William Battle Cobb’s
mother, was born in Lilesville, Anson County, North
Carolina on 25 December 1864. She was
the sister of Kemp Plummer Battle (1831-1919), who served as the President of
the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 1876 to 1891. Battle Park, named for Kemp Plummer Battle,
was a favorite collecting location for his nephew, William Battle Cobb. Mary
Battle Cobb died in 1900.1,2,5
“Following three years of bachelorhood, an ardent [Collier] Cobb
passionately courted Mary’s cousin, 40-year old Lucy Plummer Battle. They were married in April 1904, and a year
later Lucy and her infant son Richard died.
[Collier] Cobb then married Mary Know Gatlin, a native of Arkansas...
By 1915 [Collier] Cobb had used a portion of Mary Know Gatlin Cobb’s dowry to
purchase land and build houses on Cobb Terrace [35.917169 latitude, -79.054471 longitude in downtown Chapel
William Battle Cobb attended the University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill starting in 1908, earned an A. B. in 1912,
and an A. M. in 1913. While at UNC-CH,
Cobb was a member of the track team (1910-1911) and served as an Assistant in
Botany (1911-1913). Cobb enlisted in
the A.S. Signal Corps on January 16, 1918 and graduated from the U.S.A.
School of Military Aeronautics on August 17, 1918. He attended a war course for aerial
observers, then School of Fire for Field Artillery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma in
1918. He spent 1919 at the Air Service
Flying School at Post Field, Oklahoma, and was commissioned as a 2nd
Lieutenant in the Air Service, Officers Reserve Corps.
In 1922 he attended Reserve Officers
Training Camp at Taylor Field, Montgomery, Alabama. In 1923 he was promoted to 1st
Lieutenant, Aerial Observers Rating.
W. B. Cobb served as a scientist for the
U.S. Soil Survey from 1913 to 1920, and as a
geologist & soil expert for the American Rural Planning Association in
Madison, Wisconsin in 1920.
W. B. Cobb was known as an innovator in the
field of soil science. “The greatest
time-saver in soil survey field work was introduced in North Carolina in
1920. W. B. Cobb and W. A. Davis, in
Tyrrell County, used a Model T Ford as the mode of transportation. Road measurements were by means of a
special speedometer-odometer attached to the right side of the dash of the auto
and connected by a flexible cable to a small gear box clamped to the right
frame of the forward axle. A fiber
sprocket on the gear box was turned by a notched metal ring attached to the
wheel. A standard speedometer was used
at first. A carefully calibrated and
numbered scale to show 50 lines to the inch was pasted over the tenths dial
of the odometer. Thus, the same scale
was used as on the [horse] buggy odometer. .. The first use of an airplane as
an aid in soil survey mapping in the State [of North Carolina] was in Tyrrell
County, 1920, by W. B. Cobb who had some experience in World War I as a pilot
and an observer. Since about 60% of
Tyrrell County was covered by almost impenetrable wet woodlands, Cobb, assisted
by W. A. Davis, used air observation to indicate points where he might enter
such areas on foot and carry out reasonably definite traverse lines. He was also enabled to outline changes in
forest and other vegetation to help correlate major soil boundaries and
indicate drainage changes.”6
In 1923 Cobb presented his ideas on the use
of airplanes in soil survey work to fellow soil scientists:
There are two ways in which an airplane may be used to
advantage in soil survey work. One of
these is by enabling the surveyor to make direct observations from the air
and the other is in the making of aerial photographic maps which may be used
in the preparation of base maps and for reference during the survey and the
final drafting of the soil map…
… in an area containing considerable timber, swamp land,
inaccessible streams, roads which do not run on section lines, shore lines,
lakes, &c., an airplane will greatly facilitate the work and materially
increase its accuracy.
… The photographs are taken so as to overlap one third each
way and are matched and mounted. The
large map, or mosaic as it is called, may be photographed down to the desired
scale. A base map may be drawn from
the photographic map which will save the time required to map towns, traverse
… Now that I have attempted to show that better soil maps
can be made with the help of an airplane the question naturally arises: Can this work be done economically? I believe that it can. Considerable time can be saved and
considerable accuracy can be added to the work. After having flown over Dare County, North
Carolina in a seaplane I am convinced that I could map the county in a month
by using a seaplane two or three days and a motor boat the rest of the
time. Without the aid of a seaplane three
or four months would probably be necessary.
This is an extreme case, but the proper use of an airplane would save
… The element of danger in aerial observation is
slight. I am unable to recall an
instance of an aviator getting killed while making maps except under war conditions. The fatal accidents come from exhibition
flying and the like.
If any man engaged in soil survey work wishes to have a
most interesting and instructive experience let him take his field maps into
the air and compare them with what he sees on the ground below.
From 1920-1924 he served as an Associate
Professor of Agronomy at the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge,
Louisiana, then returned to his home state to become an Associate Professor
of Soils at North Carolina State College in Raleigh. In 1927 Cobb received his Ph.D. in Geology
from the University at North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and was promoted to
full professorship at NC State that same year.3
W. B. Cobb married Eva Cohoon
(b. 28 August 1896 in Gum Neck, Tyrrell County, North Carolina) in Columbia,
North Carolina on 28 December 1920.
Eva was a graduate of Columbia High School in 1913 and Southern
Business College in Norfolk, Virginia in 1914. Together they had three children: Mary
Martha Cobb (b. January 13, 1922), Eva Carolyn “Carol” Cobb (b. 6 July1923),
and William, Jr. (b. ca. 1928).1, 3
W. B. Cobb contracted pneumonia shortly
after arriving in Chicago on November 12, 1933 for the meeting of the
American Soil Survey Association, of which he was the President. “Attending physicians resorted to
oxygenations in a desperate effort to save Dr. Cobbs
life. He died [on November 22] in the
Illinois Memorial Hospital.”8 Classes at North Carolina State
College were cancelled on November 25, 1933, out of respect for the memory of
Dr. W. B. Cobb. 7
He is buried in the Old Chapel Hill
Cobb, W. B. (1912) Some experiments in plant
nutrition. Thesis, University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Cobb, W. B.
(1913) Geology in relation to
soil types and soil fertility in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina region. M.A. Thesis, University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill.
Cobb, W. B. (1917) Soil
survey of Bottineau County, North Dakota.
Washington, D. C.: Government
Cobb, W. B. and H. W. Hawker (1918) Soil
survey of Payne County, Oklahoma.
Washington, D.C.: Government
Cobb, W. B. and S. F. Davidson (1919) Soil
survey of Caldwell County, North Carolina. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.
Cobb, W. B. (1919) Soil survey of Beaufort County,
North Carolina. Washington, D. C.:
Government Printing Office.
Cobb, W. B. (1923) Possibilities of the
airplane in soil survey work. Soil
Science Society of America Journal. B4(1): 77-80.
Cobb, W. B. and W. A. Davis (1924) Soil survey of Tyrrell County, North
Carolina. Washington, D. C. : Government Printing
Whitson, A. R., W. G. Geib,
W. H. Pierre, C. B. Clevenger, L. R. Schoenmann,
and W. B. Cobb (1924)
survey of Walworth County, Wisconsin.
Cobb, W. B. (1927) A comparison of the development of
soils from the acid and basic crystalline rocks of Piedmont North
Carolina. Ph.D. Thesis, University of
North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Geology Department.
Davis, W. A. and W. B. Cobb (1930) Soil survey of
Watauga County, North Carolina.
Washington, D. C. : Government Printing Office.
W. B. Cobb also had joint authorship of
soil survey reports: Hoke (NC), Kershaw (SC), Putnam (FL), Frederick (VA),
Lancaster (PA), Jefferson & Hempstead (AR), Woolworth
& Racine (WI) – incomplete citations.
General Alumni Association of the University of North Carolina. Profile submitted by W. B. Cobb, May 19,
2. Collier Cobb
Cobb Funeral to be held in City.
Obituary, November 24, 1933.
William Battle Cobb Grave.
Cobb Family papers http://www.lib.unc.edu/mss/inv/c/Cobb_Family.html
6. Lee, William D. (1984) The early history of soil
surveys in North Carolina. Raleigh, North Carolina: Soil Science Society of North
Carolina. 28 p.
Dr. William B. Cobb.
Obituary. News and Observer,
Raleigh, N.C. November 25, 1933.
Dr. William B. Cobb Dies of Pneumonia.
Associated Press, November 22, 1933.
Vickers, James (1996) Images of America: Chapel Hill. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing. Pages 66 & 67.
Cobb, W. B. (1923)
of the airplane in soil survey work.
Soil Science Society of America Journal. B4(1): 77-80.