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Mildred Cohn

by Susan J. Ainsworth
December 14, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 50

Mildred Cohn, 96, professor emerita of physiological chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, died of respiratory failure on Oct. 12 in Philadelphia.

Born in New York City, Cohn was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants. She received a B.S. in chemistry from Hunter College in 1931 and earned a doctorate in physical chemistry from Columbia University in 1938.

She then worked briefly as a research associate in the biochemistry department at George Washington University and at Cornell University’s medical school. In 1946, she took a research position at Washington University in St. Louis, working in the biochemistry laboratory of Carl and Gerty Cori, who both received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1947.

Cohn joined UPenn’s medical school faculty as an associate professor of biophysics and physical biochemistry in 1960, and she became a full professor the following year. In 1982, she was named the Benjamin Rush Professor of Physiological Chemistry and served as a senior scientist at the Fox Chase Cancer Center until her retirement in 1985.

In her research, Cohn studied the thermodynamics of enzyme reactions and used stable isotopes to study metabolic processes as well as mechanisms of enzymatic reactions. She was among the first to use nuclear magnetic resonance techniques to investigate metabolism.

Overcoming religious and gender discrimination, Cohn published more than 160 articles in the fields of biochemistry and biophysics. She was also the first woman to be elected president of the American Society for Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, tapped for the position in 1978, and the first woman to be appointed to the board of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, where she served as editor for 10 years.

Cohn received the National Medal of Science in 1982 and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame the day before she died. She was an emerita member of ACS, having joined in 1938.

She is survived by daughters Nina Primakoff Rossomando and Laura Primakoff; a son, Paul Primakoff; six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Cohn’s husband, Henry Primakoff, died in 1983.

Susan J. Ainsworth writes obituaries. Obituary notices may be sent to and should include a detailed educational and professional history.



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