Conservation Professional Profile: Ellen Cobb

By Joe Otto, SWCS Historian

Ellen Cobb was NACD’s first executive leader. At its first meeting in 1946, NACD’s founding board of directors appointed Cobb as Executive Secretary. She was one of 19 conservation professionals present at that first meeting. From South Carolina, Cobb attended the meeting with her colleague E.C. McArthur – the board’s first chair. In the preceding years, Cobb and McArthur worked together in South Carolina to organize a state association for conservation district supervisors. An SCS employee, Cobb attended multiple meetings, kept careful notes, and maintained lists of key contacts – effectively building South Carolina’s first conservation professional network that would become its state association.[1]

Ellen Cobb was the only woman present at the founders’ first meeting, which included prominent state association directors from 17 states. In an iconic black and white picture from that meeting (pictured above), she is seated at the head of the table.

Ellen Cobb served as NACD’s Executive Secretary for two years and was instrumental in laying the organization’s foundation. Her experience in organizing the South Carolina state association made her perfect for the job of corresponding with board members and executing actions. She also went above and beyond the call of duty when tragedy struck. In 1947, her colleague and board chairman E.C. McArthur was killed in a car accident, throwing the organization’s leadership into disarray. To ensure McArthur’s plans were carried out, Ellen Cobb relocated NACD’s headquarters from South Carolina to New York, to be in close contact with the incoming chair. According to NRCS Historian Doug Helms, “Cobb was clearly the most knowledgeable person about McArthur’s plans for the infant organization.”[2]

In 1948, Cobb resigned and returned to South Carolina, but she forever remains part of the conservation district legacy as NACD’s first executive leader.

[1] R. Neil Sampson, For Love of the Land: A History of the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD, 1984), 51.

[2] Douglas Helms, “Women in the Soil Conservation Service,” (1992), in Sam Stalcup, ed., He Loved to Carry the Message: The Collected Writings of Douglas Helms, 1967-2010, (, 2012), 652-3.

Joe Otto is the historian of the Soil and Water Conservation Society. Learn more at

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