Obituaries have always been somewhat challenging to me. An individual is born, lives his life to the fullest, and then dies. And so it was with Isidore Cohn, Jr., MD, FACS, who died October 14, 2015, at age 94. However, in Dr. Cohn’s case, living life to the fullest was an incredible adventure that had a lasting impact not only on generations of surgeons, but on the multitude of patients who received care from his emissaries—the surgeons he trained.
Dr. Cohn has been described as an icon in surgery. Few surgeons would dispute such a descriptor, nor would many challenge his characterization as the ultimate Southern gentleman.
When one thinks of the passing of an icon, it is easy to list in chronological order the achievements that the individual accomplished in his or her lifetime and for which many accolades were bestowed. However, our time is better spent trying to understand the qualities and accomplishments that brought Dr. Cohn to this profound state of acknowledgement.
Dr. Cohn’s achievements are monumental, but the lessons to be learned are even more essential. What was the most important trait that Isidore brought to a relationship? Each person who knew him seems to have a unique assessment, although many linger on the pervasive calm; the insightfulness; the wry, quiet smile; or the restrained, soft-spoken comments that drove to the heart of the matter. Though he was not necessarily exuberant, his enthusiasm was palpable. There was always a sense of the collected self that gave a certain assurance to his comments. The whispered word from Isidore Cohn had a greater effect on most people than the shouted rhetoric so common in our lives.
Isidore Cohn walked to the beat of a slightly different drummer—one whom not all could hear—but he had about him a presence that all could understand. He was not a loner, but he held himself in reserve. He was mature beyond his years, even as an elder statesman.
Isidore was of slender build, had a twinkle in his eye, and always wore a hint of a smile on his face. He often tilted his head slightly and focused carefully on the conversation at hand, letting you know that you had his full and undivided attention. You also sensed that when he gave you advice, he was not merely offering suggestions but rather sharing a certain wisdom. You inherently knew that if you shared a problem with him, he would follow up on the situation to see how the events had worked out.
Product of his upbringing
To understand the complex individual that was Dr. Cohn, it is important to bear in mind that he was a product of another era—one that began in the early 20th century when his father, Isidore Cohn, Sr., MD, rose to prominence in New Orleans, LA. In many ways, the junior Dr. Cohn’s carriage and demeanor reflected those mannerisms and behaviors that he expressed in his childhood. As Ian Cohn noted in his eulogy for his father, this coming year will be the first in more than 110 years that a Dr. Isidore Cohn will not be listed in the roster of the citizens of New Orleans.
The senior Dr. Isidore Cohn was a stalwart of not only the medical community of New Orleans but of the Jewish community as well. The Cohn house of that era focused on scholarly activity, study of the classics, proper use of the English language, and a general sense of curiosity. Academic achievement was the order of the day.
Dinner was served precisely at the same time each night and all family members were expected to attend. Etiquette was emphasized. Frequently, dinners would be accompanied by readings from Shakespeare or other intellectually stimulating activities. Proper attire and manners were expected. Although some might call this a privileged upbringing, it carried with it serious responsibilities and demands, especially for children and adolescents.
As one who came later into the shadow cast by the light of Dr. Cohn’s influence, I realized that he expected excellence not only from the members of his family, but also from his “extended” family—those whom he had trained in surgery.
Marianne, his wife for almost 40 years, was his constant companion during his later years. She had a wonderful effect on Isidore. Marianne had brought with her to the Cohn family her own interest in philanthropy and the arts. Together, she and Isidore contributed substantially to the city of New Orleans and its cultural life. Isidore had always been interested in Steuben crystal (“glass,” as he called it) and the Cohns’ collection of these delicate pieces was perhaps one of the largest private assemblages in the world. They also had an interest in jade, and their collections of this semi-precious stone and Steuben glass were often included in exhibits at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Dr. Cohn’s commitment to New Orleans was deep and lifelong. He served on the boards of the greater New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Touro Synagogue Foundation, and the Jewish Endowment Foundation.
At the time of his death last October, Dr. Cohn held the title of emeritus chairman and emeritus professor of surgery at the Louisiana State University (LSU) School of Medicine, New Orleans. His impact on the School of Medicine was enormous.
Dr. Cohn’s education started in New Orleans at the preparatory Isidore Newman School and included a protracted tenure at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, where he received his undergraduate and his medical degrees. He completed surgical training at that institution, returning to New Orleans in 1952 to pursue a career in academic surgery.
James D. Rives, MD, FACS, then chairman of the department of surgery at LSU, recruited Isidore with the intent of developing a research arm for the department of surgery. In 1962, Dr. Cohn succeeded Dr. Rives as chairman of the department of surgery, a position that he held for 27 years. At that time, and even today, his was one of the longest tenures of a chairman at any major department of surgery in the U.S. Concurrently, he served as chief of the LSU service at Charity Hospital in New Orleans.
In these roles, he influenced thousands of medical learners. More than 300 surgical residents completed their training under Dr. Cohn. The James D. Rives Surgical Society—subsequently renamed the Isidore Cohn Jr.–James D. Rives Surgical Society—raised money to establish the first $1 million endowed chair. The Isidore Cohn, Jr., MD, Professor and Chair position was formally established in 1989. I had the honor of being the first occupant of that position. This society spearheaded the development of the Isidore Cohn, Jr., MD, Student Learning Center, which continues to function as a state-of-the-art surgical training facility.
Recognition in career and community
Dr. Cohn’s skill was acknowledged by numerous awards and his election to numerous leadership positions. A Fellow of the American College of Surgeons (ACS) since 1954, he served on the Board of Governors starting in 1985 and chaired that body from 1990 to 1991. He was elected First Vice-President of the ACS in 1993. He was Chair, Committee on Chapter Relations (1990), and served on the Advisory Councils for Surgical Specialties (1986−1991).
He also was elected president of the New Orleans Surgical Society (1967), Surgical Association of Louisiana (1968), Southeastern Surgical Congress (1972), and Southern Surgical Association (1982−1983).
Furthermore, Dr. Cohn was honored with the Founders Medal of the Society of Surgeons of the Alimentary Tract and the Spirit of Charity Award from the Medical Center of Louisiana (2002). He was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of South Carolina (1995), the Outstanding Alumnus of the Isidore Newman School (2003), the Tzedakah Award from the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Louisiana (2009), the Chairman’s Award from the Arts Council of New Orleans (2012), and the Isaac Delgado Award from the New Orleans Museum of Art.
The truest legacy of an individual is not the feats he accomplishes during his time on this earth, but the impact that lives on after he is gone. It also is true that substantial parts of this legacy are those lessons learned through the example the individual sets. Such lessons we have learned are awakened and punctuated by the sense of loss that we feel for the deceased.
The lasting impact that Dr. Isidore Cohn, Jr., had on surgery and New Orleans was remarkable. He is greatly missed.