[EAS]Donald Cohen

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Sat Oct 20 15:28:35 EDT 2001

Subject:   Donald Cohen


With only 50 obituaries per year, The Economist is inevitably
selective. Claude Shannon didn't make it, Herbert Simon did. This
week pays tribute to Donald Cohen, humanitarian and head of the
Yale Child Study Centre, who died on October 2nd, aged 61. --PJK

Donald Cohen
Oct 18th 2001 
>From The Economist print edition
Donald Cohen, head of the Yale Child Study Centre, died on October
2nd, aged 61

NATHANIEL LAOR'S abiding memory of the Gulf war is of sitting in an
underground bunker in Tel Aviv just after his children's clinic had
been struck by a Scud missile. All of a sudden, the mobile in his
hand began to ring. It was Donald Cohen. "Nati," he asked the
frightened man, "what do you need? How can we help?"

Mr Cohen had helped before. He brought Mr Laor, an Israeli child
psychiatrist, into the Yale Child Study Centre. And he encouraged
him, after Mr Laor returned to Israel, to set up the country's
first psychiatric trauma unit for children. Over the years, Mr
Cohen helped again and again. He travelled to Israel twice a year.
In between visits, he was constantly on the phone, calling west
coast Americans before they went to bed and Israelis as soon as
they got up, to share news, offer professional advice and raise

Mr Cohen urged others to reach out too. He travelled to Saudi
Arabia to solicit donations for the first Arabic journal of child
psychiatry. He helped found an association of child and adolescent
psychiatry for the eastern Mediterranean. When the Arabs complained
that Israelis were being invited to the first meeting at Sharm
el-Sheikh in February 2000, Mr Cohen brought them in under the
umbrella of the American delegation. Many of the Israeli doctors
had never met an Egyptian, let alone an Iraqi or an Iranian, but
their damaged children, they found, shared many traits. Mr Cohen
encouraged the Israelis to share their experience with the
overstretched mental health clinics in Gaza and Ramallah. When he
could not travel into Palestinian territory, Mr Cohen brought both
sides together for meetings on the border. For the sake of the
children, he said, the talking had to go on. 

Poor boy, rich child

Mr Cohen was raised in a poor Jewish neighbourhood on the west side
of Chicago. His father sold used bakery equipment. The Cohens were
very observant Jews, who believed in discipline at home and,
politically, in enlightened government intervention to help the
disadvantaged. To the end, Mr Cohen refused to write on Saturdays,
preferring to do mitzvot (Yiddish for "good deeds"), though every
week he would count the moments till sundown when he could check
his e-mails. Mr Cohen's was the first generation in his family of
Polish émigrés to go to university, studying philosophy and
psychology and then medicine. His world opened up when he won a
Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge University and travelled to
Israel for the first time. 

He judged his own work, he later told a friend, by "the size of the
ideas". Curious, ebullient and ever the optimist, Mr Cohen liked to
reach out to damaged children and draw them back into the fold of
normality. When he began working, Tourette's syndrome, with its
terrifying array of symptoms­tics and twitches, yelling and
cursing­was regarded as an exotic and untreatable condition. Mr
Cohen's team at Yale brought together specialists in biology,
genetics, neurology and psychology to provide a framework of
treatment that is now commonplace, not just for patients, but also
for their families.

One of his patients was a young man he called by a pseudonym,
"Abe". At their first meeting, Abe yelled and cursed and banged his
head about so violently his parents had to bring him in tied to a
chair to stop him injuring himself. Though terrifying to behold­and
terrified­Abe, under Mr Cohen's guidance, gradually overcame the
demons that possessed his mind. He grew very good at describing his
inner world. Inside, he said, were two bulls attacking each other
while he was caught, helpless, between them. For nearly 20 years,
Mr Cohen treated Abe four times a week. He also wrote extensively
about him, always stressing how much he had learned from his
patient. Abe would later call their work a "collaboration". Today
Abe is a champion weight-lifter and is about to get married. 

Mr Cohen's interest in the effects of violence on children dates
back a decade. New Haven, despite a population of only 125,000, was
a poor and troubled city. At the centre was Yale, safe in its
monolith. But the rest of the city was in the grip of an epidemic
of crime, with more than 20,000 major incidents being reported
every year. Just as he had done for Nathaniel Laor in Israel, Mr
Cohen picked up the phone and rang Nicholas Pastore, New Haven's
chief of police. "What can we do? How can we help?" The two men
brought together police, mental-health workers and the criminal
justice department to improve training and help young criminals and
their families. The Yale programme has been replicated in 12
American cities.

Inner-city violence differs from war in a number of ways. War
brings families together and there is a reasonable expectation that
it will end; urban warfare has none of this. A child overwhelmed by
violence feels helpless, though, whatever the root cause. That
child can withdraw into himself, with terrible consequences for his
ability to trust and to learn. Or he can refuse to be passive,
choosing instead to take direct action against his helplessness. In
a nutshell, he becomes violent himself. Mr Cohen never stopped
reminding people of the dangers. That is why he was always on the

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