Bernice H. Cohen

Johns Hopkins public health scientist worked in genetics and epidemiology and set up a training program

  • Bernice Cohen
Bernice Cohen
April 18, 2011|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

Bernice H. Cohen, a retired Johns Hopkins University scientist who was an early advocate of showing how genetics and epidemiology could be connected, died of congestive heart failure April 12 at the North Oaks Retirement Community. She was 86.

"She was unique in having the foresight to bring together the scientific fields of genetics and epidemiology, and established the first formal academic training program in genetic epidemiology at Johns Hopkins in 1979," said a Hopkins colleague, Terri H. Beaty of Cockeysville. "She was a driving force in establishing a new scientific discipline and helped define its importance in public health."

Born Bernice Hirschhorn in Baltimore and raised on Auchentoroly Terrace, she attended Robert E. Lee School No. 49 and was a 1940 Western High School graduate.

At Goucher College, where she earned a degree in physiology and hygiene, she was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, she taught and worked in research at the Johns Hopkins University and Goucher College, and taught for a year at Western High School.

In 1946, she married Samuel Cohen, a pharmacist who had a store at Charles and Preston streets and later worked for the Read Drug and Chemical Co. and Rite Aid. Friends said he drove her to and from her Hopkins office daily.

After the birth of her sons, she returned to school and earned a doctorate in biology at Hopkins in 1958. She later earned a master's degree at what is now the Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where she spent her career.

Colleagues said it was her work in the field of human genetics and her study with Dr. Bentley Glass at the Homewood campus that caught her interest. "At the time, the blood groups A, B and O were widely available genetic markers," said Dr. Beaty.

With this interest in genetics, in 1960 she joined the Hopkins public health faculty. She engaged in a range of scientific research projects, including studies on birth defects such as Down syndrome, and respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. By 1970, she became a full professor at the school of public health. She retired in 2001.

"She worked so hard and for such long hours — and took things so seriously — she could sometimes drive you up the wall. But she was totally respected," said Dr. Solbert Permutt, former head of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Hopkins. "People liked her very much. They found her intensity as merely humorous and endearing. She was never bothersome. She was a person who cared about the problems of others around her."

Dr. Cohen wrote 13 book chapters and co-authored three scientific books. She also served on numerous national scientific advisory panels and study sections.

"She was a forceful teacher who held her students to high standards," Dr. Beaty said. "One of her former students is now the minister of health in Taiwan. She always approached her work with enthusiasm and determination, and trained many graduate students and postdoctoral trainees all over the world."

After her retirement, Dr. Cohen was appointed professor emerita at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Services were held April 14 at Sol Levinson and Bros.

Survivors include two sons, Dr. Robert Cohen of Sayre, Pa., and Dr. Bruce Cohen of Brookline, Mass.; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter. Her husband of 55 years died in 2001.

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