Donald J. Cohen MED ’66, Sterling professor of child psychiatry and the director of the Yale Child Study Center, died Tuesday morning after a yearlong battle with liver cancer.
Deeply committed to improving conditions for inner-city children, Cohen was respected throughout New Haven as an accomplished academic and a dedicated public servant.
“Donald’s illness was a heartbreak for me, my family and the whole Child Study Center community,” said Yale President Richard Levin, who called Cohen a “close personal friend.”
“It was painful to see a person so productive decline so rapidly. He was a prolific writer, a broad-ranging intellectual,” Levin said.
A child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Cohen specialized in childhood neuropsychiatric disorders, including autism, Tourette’s syndrome and attention disorders.
He joined the Yale School of Medicine faculty in 1972 and became the director of the Yale Child Study Center in 1983.
Cohen studied at Brandeis University, at Yale and Harvard, at the University of Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship, and later wrote or contributed to more than a dozen books and over 300 articles. He was vice-president of the Child First Foundation; co-chair of the board of trustees of the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut; international president of the Foundation for Education and Research Concerning Children and Adolescents in Milan, Italy; and chair of the International Scientific Council of Schneider Children’s Hospital of Israel in Tel Aviv.
But even with all his accomplishments, his close friends said his passion was for the Yale Child Study Center. The center, which was founded in 1911 and received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice in 1999 for its child healthcare work, is a cooperative program between Yale and the New Haven community. It provides health and psychiatric care and educational outreach programs for local youth and also serves as a research facility with a staff of over 40 doctors and researchers.
“We’re working together with the city of New Haven. It will be interesting to see how Yale as a citizen of New Haven and New Haven itself have grown together,” the Yale Daily News quoted Cohen as saying in 1998.
Cohen made close friends of Yale’s and New Haven’s most powerful figures, who said they remembered his profound sense of social responsibility and his kindness and compassion for children.
“I’ve watched him interact with kids,” said Mayor John DeStefano Jr. “Donald felt that irrespective of what your profession was, there was an opportunity and a responsibility to help kids. More than that, he understood the possibilities the Child Study Center represented to the kids of this city, and by extension all kids in urban settings growing up with less chance to be successful with the talents and skills God gave them. He had a vision for what a difference the students, faculty and clinical staff at the center could provide them.”
Cohen is survived by his wife, Dr. Phyllis Cohen, and four children, including his son, Joseph Cohen ’02.
DeStefano remembers Cohen giving him advice about his own children.
“I can remember when I had issues with my own boys in my own house, Donald being there for [DeStefano’s wife] Kathy and me,” DeStefano said. “He was just a giving, giving guy.”