In Memoriam: Renowned Leader of Yale Child Study Center Donald Cohen

Donald J. Cohen, The Sterling Professor of Child Psychiatry, Pediatrics and Psychology at Yale University and director of the Yale Child Study Center at the Yale University School of Medicine, died on October 2 at age 61.

Donald J. Cohen, The Sterling Professor of Child Psychiatry, Pediatrics and Psychology at Yale University and director of the Yale Child Study Center at the Yale University School of Medicine, died on October 2 at age 61.

Widely recognized as the leading American child psychiatrist of his generation, Cohen was also known as a great scientist, psychoanalyst, social policy advocate and institution builder. He made groundbreaking contributions in biological psychiatry, clinical care and the development of international collaborations in child psychiatry. Cohen pioneered neurobiological research into autism and tic disorders, particularly Tourette’s syndrome. He was the first to propose using the anti-hypertensive drug clonidine for Tourette’s syndrome, which opened new avenues to treating and understanding the disorder.

“The entire Yale community mourns the loss of Donald Cohen-a brilliant scholar and a humane, sensitive and thoughtful leader,” said Yale President Richard Levin. “He leaves behind a great legacy. The Yale Child Study Center is a unique institution, the finest of its kind and a major contributor to advancing the well-being of children in New Haven and around the world.”

Cohen joined the faculty of the Yale School of Medicine in 1972 and became director of the Child Study Center in 1983. One of the world’s leading centers of child psychiatry, the Center is internationally recognized for its multidisciplinary programs of clinical and basic research, professional education and clinical services and advocacy for children and families.

Together with colleagues at the Child Study Center and around the world, Cohen developed a series of programs to assist children exposed to violence and disaster. One such program, the Yale-New Haven Child Development Community Policing Program, trains police officers, who usually are the first to encounter children who have witnessed or committed a violent crime, in how to respond to children and families, with immediate assistance from a team of clinicians from the Center. These specially trained officers help children cope with the trauma of exposure to violence and with the longer-term aftermath of such trauma.

This Yale program has been widely admired and replicated. The Department of Justice designated the Child Study Center as the site of the new National Center for Children Exposed to Violence, to disseminate knowledge about children and trauma and provide a national focal point for research, evaluation and training.

Cohen and his colleagues also initiated an international work group on children and violence. Participants have included colleagues working with children and families in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Mozambique, Southeast Asia and the former Yugoslavia, as well as the inner cities and suburbs of America.

To recognize his contributions to the field, the Tel Aviv Mental Health Center and Tel Aviv University recently established the Cohen-Harris Center for the Study of Trauma, named in honor of Cohen and his close colleague Irving Harris.

Cohen trained and mentored a generation of child psychiatrists around the world. He brought young child psychiatrists from dozens of countries to the Center and maintained close personal and professional ties with them over the course of their careers. Within recent years, he inspired and helped his protegees to produce the first Israeli textbook of child psychiatry in Hebrew, the first modern textbook of child psychiatry in China and a new textbook of child psychiatry in South Korea.

Shortly before his death, Cohen placed his relationship with the next generation of scholars at the core of his professional life, saying, “To have individuals pick up your ideas, challenge them and move them forward, is the greatest compliment to a clinical researcher and represents the only true immortality that we know.”

In 1992, Cohen became president of the International Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Professions (IACAPAP) and used this position to foster international collaborations in research and clinical care. Cohen was particularly proud of helping to promote child psychiatric services in Gaza and to create a Middle Eastern regional organization of child psychiatrists. He also served as chair of the international scientific committee of this group, known as the Eastern Mediterranean Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Professions (EMACAPAP).

Cohen received a Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy and psychology from Brandeis University and went on to Cambridge University as a Fulbright Scholar in philosophy. He received his medical degree from Yale University School of Medicine in 1966. Before joining the Yale faculty, he served as special assistant to the director of the Office of Child Development in Washington, D.C. Cohen is the author of over 400 articles, chapters and books. A man of broad intellectual interests, he served as chair of the publications committee and vice president of the Board of Governors of Yale University Press. He was also chair of the Child Health and Development Institute, the International President of the Telefon Azzuro Foundation (Italy) and chair of the international advisory committee of the Schneider Children’s Hospital of Israel, as well as a member of the editorial board of scientific publications in France, Israel, Great Britain and the United States.

Cohen was also a training and supervising psychoanalyst at the Western New England Institute of Psychoanalysis and was a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

Cohen is survived by his wife, Phyllis, a psychoanalyst on the faculty of the Child Study Center; and his children, Mathew, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow, Scotland; Rebecca Martin, of New Haven, a former special assistant to Dean David Kessler at Yale School of Medicine; Rachel Goldstein of Manhattan, a management consultant with the Boston Consulting Group; and Joseph, a senior at Yale College; his daughter-in-law Aviva; and sons-in-law Andres Martin, assistant professor of child psychiatry at the Child Study Center; and Allan Goldstein, a pediatric surgeon; brothers Avie of New York and Howard of Newton, Massachusetts; and his mother, Rose Cohen of Woodbridge.

Funeral services will be held in New Haven on October 4 at 9:30 a.m. at the Westville Synagogue, 74 West Prospect Street.

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