ISIDORE COHN, JR., M.D.
1921 - 2015
Writing an obituary is a difficult endeavor. A daunting task. It attempts to place in a few highly selected words an individual’s total life experiences.
Isidore Cohn Jr. was born in New Orleans on September 25, 1921 and died in New Orleans on October 14, 2015. In between these two seminal events, staged 94 years apart, he accomplished as much and in fact more than any mortal could expect of another mortal.
Dr. Cohn was raised in the family of a revered and accomplished general surgeon in the city of New Orleans. This family represented the epitome of southern culture and of culture in general. Evening meals were set for a given time and discussions centered on philosophy and cultural experiences. Classical music was frequently audible in the background. The family valued education and also valued performance. The children were expected to participate at all levels, but performance in the educational field was not only expected, but demanded. Proper use of the English language was emphasized, as was letter writing and communications. Academic achievement was the order of the day.
Dr. Cohn's secondary education was at the Isidore Newman Preparatory School in New Orleans, which was unrivaled in the city for its academic excellence. He then matriculated at the University of Pennsylvania and received his undergraduate degree and the degree of Medical Doctor from that institution. He stayed on in Philadelphia and did his surgery training at Penn before returning to New Orleans in 1952 to begin his practice of surgery, presumably with his father.
At that time, Dr. James D. (Jimmy) Rives was Chairman of Surgery at LSU (Louisiana State University) in New Orleans and felt that his department needed a stronger emphasis in research and scholarly activity. He invited the newly minted surgeon to join his department on a part-time basis to develop the research efforts within the department. It was during this period that Dr. Cohn became interested in the role that bacteria played in the gut and created one of the few gnotobiologic colonies of animals for research. A decade after Dr. Cohn arrived back in New Orleans, Dr. Rives announced his retirement and Dr. Cohn was selected to be his successor. Thus, began his twenty-seven year tenure as professor and chairman of the New Orleans LSU Department of Surgery and chief of the LSU surgical service at Big Charity Hospital, New Orleans.
Chairmen of departments of surgery during this time were remarkable individuals often with personalities that dominated the surgical landscape. Dr. Cohn walked among these giants, but he walked to a slightly different drummer, a drummer that not all could hear. Despite this, there was a presence about him that all understood. There was a calmness about Dr. Cohn that suggested insightfulness and understanding. He was not a loud man, but when he spoke, there was a wisdom in his words. Though slender in appearance and sometimes with hair that might have been considered too long for current fashion, he was a leader among leaders. He often appeared to hold himself aloof from the chaos that was around him. He could become angry often, and then only in circumstances in which such an emotion was appropriate. He did not tolerate foolishness and was a true patient's advocate. He thoroughly enjoyed his role as educator and as leader. It did not bother him to hold an opinion that might not be considered "main stream." He was straight forward in his conversation and covered the subject matter without being chatty. There was often a twinkle in his eye and a hint of a smile on his face. When in conversation, he would often tilt his head slightly to the right and you knew that you had his full and undivided attention. He would offer his advice if asked, but wasn’t the kind of person that enforced his will on others. He followed through when given a task to the absolute fullest degree.
Many have said that a metamorphosis came over Dr. Cohn when he met his wife Marianne. When they were introduced, it was as though an instantaneous bond existed between them. Many of the surgeons that knew Dr. Cohn before he met Marianne recognized this change for the positive. She had a wonderful impact on him and became a "soul" partner from the very beginning. The two had greatly similar interests in philanthropy and in the arts. Isidore had always been interested in Steuben crystal sculpture (glass, as he called it) and she had an interest in authentic jade. Later in their lives, the New Orleans Museum of Art held special exhibits displaying on different occasions each of these collections.
I did not know Isidore well until I was identified as a candidate to fill the newly created Isidore Cohn Jr. chair in surgery and the head of the Department of Surgery at LSU New Orleans. Isidore did not interview me, but I was sitting at his table at a banquet held in his honor by the North Texas Chapter of the ACS in Dallas, TX and by chance sat next to Marianne Cohn. She gave me three pieces of advice that I carried with me since. Number 1, was "In New Orleans, never take a shortcut as they do not exist," Number 2, "If someone tells you the name of the street, ask them to spell it because street names are never pronounced the way they are spelled," and Number 3, "You'll have some awfully big shoes to fill in following Isidore."
During the 27 years that Dr. Cohn was chairman of the department (an extremely long time by any comparison), he impacted thousands of medical learners. It is suggested that more than 300 surgical residents completed their training under Dr. Cohn. The alumni association for LSU surgery is now known as the Isidore Cohn Jr. – James D. Rives Surgical Society. This organization was the first to create a million dollar endowed chair within the LSU school of Medicine. Dr. Cohn served as secretary of this organization from its inception until he retired, and attended every meeting for more than forty years.
I was then, and continue to be, in awe of the impact that Dr. Cohn has had on his former residents. In his quiet unassuming way, each of these residents carry the mark of the individual who was Dr. Isidore Cohn Jr. It is not a superficial mark, but a mark that goes straight to the core. There is no nonsense here; there is simple devotion to the man and the principles for which he stood.
These principles were recognized not only locally, but across the country. Dr. Cohn served as president of the New Orleans Surgical Society (1967), the Surgical Association of Louisiana (1968), the Southeastern Surgical Congress (1972), the Southern Surgical Association (1982-1983), Chairman of the Board of Governors, and as first Vice President of the American College of Surgeons (1993). Dr. Cohn was honored by receiving the Founder's Medal of the Society of Surgeons of the Alimentary Tract and the Spirit of Charity Award from the Medical Center of Louisiana. He was awarded the Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of South Carolina in 1995 and the Outstanding Alumnus Award from the Isidore Newman School in 2003. On the local cultural scene, he received the Tzedakah Award from the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Louisiana (2009), the Chairman’s Award of the Arts Counsel of New Orleans (2012), and the Isaac Delgado Award from the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Throughout his life, Dr. Cohn was an avid supporter of the American Surgical Association and believed it to be the premiere surgical association in the country, if not the world. A portion of his work was presented at the American Surgical Association’s annual meetings.
Dr. Isidore Cohn Jr.'s impact was remarkable and will continue well into the future. He will be greatly missed.
J. PATRICK O'LEARY, M.D.