Dr. Seymour S. Cohen

1917 ∼ 2018

Dr. Seymour S. Cohen of Woods Hole, died on December 30, 2018 at the age of 101. 

Dr. Cohen had lived year round in Woods Hole since 1986 when he and his wife, the late sculptor Elaine Pear Cohen, had retired on the Cape. They originally came to Woods Hole in 1948, to spend summers at the Marine Biological Laboratory.  Dr. Cohen taught in the summer physiology course, conducted research and served as a member of the MBL Corporation and Board of Trustees. He remained in Woods Hole after his wife’s death in 1995.

Dr. Cohen was born in New York on April 30, 1917, received his B.S from the City College of New York in 1936, and his PhD in biochemistry from Columbia University in 1941.  During World War II he worked with the US Army in the development of an improved typhus vaccine that was an important aid to US troops in Italy and North Africa.

He worked at the Rockefeller Institute in Princeton in 1942 and moved to the Department of Pediatrics of the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia in 1943. He later moved to the School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania, where in 1963 he was named the first Chair of the Department of Therapeutic Research and the Hartzell Professor in Therapeutic Research.  In 1970, he moved to the University of Colorado Medical School in Denver as a Professor of Microbiology.  Five years later, he was named the Albert Schweitzer Distinguished Professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. 

Dr. Cohen’s scientific work was both deep and broad. In 1947, he discovered how viral infection spread within cells by linking a radioactive isotope to a virus and observing the pattern of infection within cells. He also worked extensively on the biochemistry of bacteriophages and patterns of growth in plants. In 1951 he was awarded the Eli Lilly Prize for his work on virus and cells, which was followed by the American Society for Nutrition’s Mead Johnson Award in 1952.

In 1955, the American Association for the Advancement of Science awarded Dr. Cohen the Newcomb Cleveland Award for the best paper presented at the Association’s Annual Meeting. The paper, "Molecular Bases of the Parasitism of Some Bacterial Viruses", showed by studying the metabolic changes in virus infections of bacteria, that molecules of mutant organisms (viruses and bacteria) can be distinguished chemically.

In 1957 he was named as the first Lifetime Professor of the American Cancer Society for his role in the development of new compounds to fight cancer. One of these compounds, 5-Fluorouracil, is still used as the primary drug to inhibit skin cancer. He published a book, Virus-Induced Enzymes, in 1968. His later work focused on the importance of polyamines, a subject on which he wrote two other books. In 1963, Dr. Cohen was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In 1967, he was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Dr. Cohen’s participation in the work of the NAS culminated in his nomination to serve, at the age of 98, as a member of a NAS panel to study strategies for the elimination of Hepatitis B and C.  Dr. Cohen actively participated in the panel and demonstrated that he continued to be current in his knowledge of recent research in this field to the age of 100.

Dr. Cohen’s work also received wide international recognition with invitations to speak in Great Britain, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Russia, Israel, Japan, Taiwan, Kenya, Mexico, Colombia, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. He made many visits to Paris, where he had worked at both the Institut Pasteur, as one of the first Guggenheim Scholars, and at the Institut de Biochemie Physico Chemique. .

He was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize and is therefore included among the group of people who hold the "Forty-First Chair" (scientists deemed worthy candidates for the Nobel Prize by the Nobel committee). He received the French Society of Biological Chemists Medal in 1964; the Borden Award of the American Association of Medical Colleges in 1967; an honorary degree from the Université Catholique de Louvain in 1972; the Passano Award in 1974; the Karl August Forster Prize of the Mainz Academy of Science and Letters in 1978; a medal from the Alumni Foundation of the City College of New York in 1978; and an honorary degree from the University of Kuopio in Finland in 1982. He was named an honorary citizen of Montpellier, France in 1984, in recognition of his scientific achievements.

Dr. Cohen’s scientific papers, including more than 250 publications, are held in the Seymour S. Cohen Papers, 1938-1990, at the Library of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.

For more than 50 years, Dr. Cohen was also deeply interested in a historical figure, Thomas Cooper, an English polymath and political activist who emigrated to the United States in 1794 with Joseph Priestly.  Cooper was once described in the early 1800s as “the most intelligent man in America.”  Dr. Cohen assembled an extensive library of documents about the life and times of Thomas Cooper that he donated in 2018 to the Library of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.

His broad study of history, complementing his important scientific achievements, gave Dr. Cohen an unusual perspective on the challenges of creating knowledge. He was an avid reader engaged in parallel substantive fields: science and history. One of his great grandchildren gave him the nickname “Google”. He was an active member of the Woods Hole Public Library.  His historical essays were published in notable historical journals.

Dr. Cohen was an active tennis player, playing competitively in the annual MBL Tennis Club tournaments and even in the National Over-90 Tennis Championship when he reached his 90th birthday. He enjoyed his many Falmouth and Woods Hole tennis partners over 70 years.

Dr. Cohen is survived by his two children, Michael and Sara, and their spouses Margarita Gutman and James Kessler, by five grandchildren: Nicole, Jonah, Rosa, Pippi, and Pamela, five great grandchildren: Stefano, Adrian, Rocco, Avery, and Ramona and his nieces and nephews.

A graveside service will be held on Wednesday, January 2, at 3:00 at the Church of the Messiah cemetery in Woods Hole.    A celebration of Dr. Cohen’s life will be held next summer in Woods Hole.


Wednesday, January 2, 2019 | 3:00 PM

Church of the Messiah Cemetery
Address & Directions

Learn more about Pre-planning

Dr. Seymour S. Cohen

1917 ∼ 2018

Do you need help in writing your guestbook entry?

Try writing about one of these topics:

  • What characteristic did you love most about the person
  • What was your relationship with him/her
  • Do you have a tasteful story about him/her that exemplifies the qualities of the person
  • What one word would you use to describe the person
  • When was the first time you met him/her
  • Did you share in a special event with him/her

Did you know, this guestbook entry will be printed and given to the family as a cherished keepsake. Your words will be held closely by the family and their gratitude for the time spent writing will be boundless.