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1937 – 2016

LAWRENCE H. COHN, M.D., 1937–2016

Dr. Lawrence Cohn, affectionately known as Larry, passed away on January 9, 2016, from a devastating cerebrovascular accident. He was a master cardiac surgeon, a valve surgeon extraordinaire, and an important leader of the second generation of cardiac surgeons.

He was born on March 11, 1937 in San Francisco. His family was in the construction business, and it was long assumed that he would take over the family business. However, that was not his intent. He received a B.A. from the University of California, Berkley in 1958 and went on to attend the Stanford University School of Medicine, receiving his M.D. in 1962. Larry decided to become a surgeon early in his training, as, by his account, he was anxious to treat patients in a very tangible way. He was exposed to cardiac surgery early on. After he had seen his first cardiac procedure, he went home and commented to his young wife (Roberta) that he was completely enamored, and that he absolutely had to train in cardiac surgery. He felt that cardiac surgery was the cutting edge for definitive medical therapy of that era. He completed his General Surgery residency at the University of California, San Francisco and then joined the Stanford University Cardiothoracic Residency Program in 1969 under the mentorship of Norman Shumway (trained by Walton Lillehei). After completing his cardiothoracic training in 1971, he joined the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital as a staff cardiac surgeon under Dr. John (Jack) J Collins, Jr (trained by Dwight Harken). In a sense, Larry merged the best of the field from three of the pioneering institutions: University of Minnesota, Stanford University, and the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. Jack Collins and his department chair, Dr. Francis Moore, wished to reinvigorate their cardiac surgery program with Larry’s obvious flare and outside expertise. Dr. Moore, on a number of occasions, remarked that Dr. Cohn was the best single recruit that he made to his faculty during his long tenure. Larry went on to continue as a faculty member for 45 years. Dr. Cohn felt that he was relatively unique individual, in that he only had one job in his career. Therefore, he could not advise any of his own faculty on potentially changing jobs.

Dr. Cohn was appointed the Director of the Cardiothoracic Surgery Residency Program and ultimately the Chief of the Division of Cardiac Surgery in 1987, succeeding Jack Collins. He served in this role until 2005, when he was succeeded by R. Morton “Chip” Bolman. Academically, Larry became a Professor Surgery at the Harvard Medical School in 1980, and, in 2002, became the Virginia and James Hubbard Distinguished Chair in Cardiac Surgery at the Harvard Medical School. He was awarded an honorary degree from the University Paris in 1992, and, in 2005, he was given the Paul Dudley White Award, the highest honor presented by the American Heart Association. Locally, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (successor institution to PBBH), he was the first Chairman of the Brigham and Women’s Physicians’ Organization. Within the parent system, Partners Health, he was the first physician Director of the Periprocedural Therapeutics Committee. Nationally, Larry served as President of the American College of Chest Physicians and President of the American Association for Thoracic Surgery.

Dr. Eugene Braunwald, a pioneering cardiologist from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the former Physician-in-Chief, described Dr. Cohn as a “brilliant and one of the world’s top cardiac surgeons”. Over his illustrious career, Larry performed in excess of 11,000 operations, impacting numerous patients, their families, and their communities. He was instrumental in the team that performed the first heart transplant in New England in 1984. His particular expertise was valvular surgery, innovating throughout his career. Even toward the end of his career, he reported a large and novel series of minimally invasive valve surgeries. He was a true academic cardiac surgeon and in 2015, the Journal of Thoracic Disease described him as “a master of masters in cardiac surgery”. Dr. Cohn had over 440 original scientific publications. He was the editor for the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th editions of Cardiac Surgery in the Adult, the most referenced cardiac surgery textbook of today. Larry served as the founding editor of the Journal of Cardiac Surgery, and served as the editor for the .

Dr. Cohn trained over 150 Cardiothoracic surgeons during his career. Looking over the roster, this includes innumerable Professors of Surgery, 7 Department Chairs, 30 Division Chiefs, one CEO of a hospital, and one Chancellor of a medical school. It was his aim to have his group train the leaders of the future. He took great pride in his “surgical sons and daughters”. Larry never hesitated to provide instantaneous feedback, even if forceful, but never attacked the trainee’s essential skills and personality. He would make sure to compliment the same trainee in short order and never held a grudge. His style of both positive and negative reinforcement was unique in its lack of anger, and even in its humor (in retrospect). Often, the criticism had the intent of strengthening the individual’s resolve and what Larry sought was equally forceful and reasoned pushback. He also trained countless General Surgery residents rotating on his service. This was a remarkable experience in critical care, stress management, and surgical technique (the General Surgery residents were responsible for saphenous vein harvest, among other things) that is no longer replicated. Each of the General Surgery residents received a gift from Larry at the end of the rotation, in gratitude for their service.

Dr. Cohn was the consummate optimist. His cheerfulness was contagious and, with his long stride walking down the lengthy main corridor of the hospital, he made a point of stopping to speak with each person that he knew. General and vascular surgeons who had trained under him during surgical residency, experienced that their careers were carefully monitored by Larry, with congratulatory hand-written letters from him appearing at various career milestones. He thought exceptionally quickly and with that came a quick wit, devoid of the siege mentality common to surgeons of his era. He was brash iconoclastic. His advice was always “keep it simple”. He was very efficient, always cleaning his office desk by the end of the day. He always returned phone calls and letters. These could be brief but always conveyed the central issue. He was invariably in his office by 6 AM starting these activities. He was fastidious in his appearance and in his attentiveness to his patients.

Dr. Cohn is survived by his wife, Roberta, who met when he was 12 years old and she was 11 years old. He is also survived by 2 daughters, Leslie and Jennifer, and 3 grandchildren over whom Dr. Cohn doted. Larry had a great passion for golf and tennis, and ultimately established the Larry Cohn Invitational Golf Tournament. He supported a number of charities such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Boys and Girls Club Association, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Boston Public Library.

It was an honor to have had him on the faculty at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.