In Memoriam: Stanton Cohn

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Posted: July 10, 2008

The following article was submitted by Dr. Avra Cohn, daughter of Stanton Cohn.

Stanton Cohn, Osteoporosis Expert, Dies at 87

Dr. Stanton H. Cohn, a biochemist and medical researcher who pioneered what came to be regarded as the gold standard for the non-invasive measurement of calcium and other elements in the human body, and thereby lay the foundations for the understanding, treatment and prevention of osteoporosis and other disorders, died on April 28 in Portland, Oregon. He was 87.

The cause was lung cancer, according to his family.

From 1950 to 1958, Dr. Cohn served as Head of the Internal Toxicity Branch of the Biomedical Division of the U.S. Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory in Hunters Point, California, investigating methods for the internal decontamination of certain radioactive materials. His career path took on a new focus in 1954, when he was summoned to join the U.S. medical team that was dispatched to the Marshall Islands to monitor the health effects on the local population, resulting from accidental exposure to radioactive fallout from the Castle Bravo nuclear tests that year on the nearby Bikini Atoll.

The team's studies, using a whole body counter to identify and measure radioactive material in the body, were among the first to recognize that the fallout from nuclear test sites might have local health and ecological consequences. Dr. Cohn was a key member of the groups that returned to the Marshall Islands, to aid the Marshallese people and to continue monitoring, in 1959, 1961, 1974 and 1977.

Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) on Long Island was the setting for Dr. Cohn's research career of nearly three decades, from 1958 until his retirement in 1986. Dr. Cohn, a Senior Scientist at BNL, was past Chairman of the Medical Physics Division, and held a joint appointment as Professor of Medicine (Clinical Physiology) in the School of Medicine of SUNY at Stony Brook.

Dr. Cohn became well-known for his innovative techniques of in vivo analysis of body composition by neutron activation and the use of the whole body counter. These techniques make possible the quantitative assessment of body composition, and have found application in both basic physiological understanding and in clinical diagnosis and management of a wide variety of diseases and disorders, including cancer and anorexia nervosa.

A colleague, Dr. Seiichi Yasumura, has noted, "The Lab has maintained a strong program in body composition studies since the pioneering work of Dr. Stanton H. Cohn in the early 1960s." Dr. Richard Pierson, of St. Luke's Hospital in New York, has remarked, "In 1970, Stanton Cohn started the modern era of elemental analysis in Body Composition by establishing the Neutron Activation program to measure body calcium in osteoporosis research."

During his career, Dr. Cohn authored or co-authored over 300 articles detailing his studies on bone health, calcium metabolism, body composition and neutron activation analysis. He also authored two books aimed at making his research accessible to the public: "Calcium Homeostasis: The Hard Facts about Soft Bones," published by BNL in 1972, and, jointly with writer Wendy Smith in 1985, a popular book entitled "Osteoporosis: How to Prevent the Brittle Bone Disease."

Born in Chicago in 1920, Dr. Cohn was one of three children of immigrant parents from Poland and Lithuania. He was in active service in the U.S. Army from June 1943 until April 1946, during which time he served as a biochemist for the 203rd General Hospital Division in England and France.

He received a Bachelor's and Master's degrees from the University of Chicago, and he earned his Doctorate in 1952, in the joint fields of physiology and radiobiology, from the University of California at Berkeley, under the late Dr. Hardin Jones.

Dr. Cohn was preceded in death earlier this year by his wife of 59 years, Sylva Dushkes Cohn, a former Professor of Mathematics at SUNY at Stony Brook, who frequently served as his collaborator in the mathematical aspects of his research. He is survived by his five children: Avra Cohn of Cambridge, England; Haldan of Bloomington, Indiana; Holly Stern of Montville, New Jersey; Cara Holman of Portland, Oregon, and Evan of Portland, Oregon; his sister, Elaine Millard of Chevy Chase, Maryland; and by his ten grandchildren.

He was appreciated by colleagues, friends and family for his dry wit, and his strong leadership and drive.


Stanton Cohn, who joined the Medical Department as a scientist on March 10, 1958, died at the age of 87 on April 28, 2008. He was granted tenure in 1967 and, after retiring as a senior scientist on April 30, 1986, he worked on as a research collaborator until September 30, 1994.

Last Modified: July 10, 2008