Lives of the fellows

Robert Donald Cohen

b.11 October 1933 d.17 October 2014
CBE(1997) MB BChir Cantab(1958) MRCS LRCP(1960) MRCP(1960) MD(1966) FRCP(1971) FMedSci(1998)

Robert (‘Bob’) Cohen was professor of medicine and director of the academic medical unit at Bart’s and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University of London. He was born in Plymouth. His father, Herman Harry Cohen, was a general practitioner who was called up to the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War and saw service in East Africa. His mother was Ruby Cohen née Brand. Bob was a talented scholar and from an early age demonstrated the analytical skills that were to serve him so well throughout his career. He attended Plymouth College and then Clifton School in Bristol, from where he won an open scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge.

Bob worked with his tutor at Trinity, William Rushton, on visual physiology and distinguished himself by shared authorship of a paper in Nature (‘Visual purple level and the course of dark adaptation.’ Nature 1954 Feb 13;173[4398]:301-2). He was awarded first class honours in the natural science tripos prior to moving to the London Hospital Medical College for his undergraduate clinical training. Bob enjoyed his undergraduate training at the London, where he met and married a fellow student, Barbara Boucher. Bob’s qualification was delayed by a diagnosis of pulmonary tuberculosis following a haemoptysis; Bob describes in his memoirs the discomfort of six months of streptomycin injections.

Bob’s early appointments after graduation were to the professorial medical and surgical units at the London Hospital. These were followed by a short period at the Postgraduate Medical School of London, Hammersmith Hospital, working on the endocrine and metabolic unit for Russell Fraser [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.149]. He returned to the London Hospital and its medical college in 1960 as a lecturer on the medical unit, where he spent the remainder of his career, apart from a brief period as a research fellow back at the Postgraduate Medical School. Bob’s MD thesis investigated the metabolic consequences of the treatment of primary hypothyroidism, which resulted in a highly cited publication in Clinical Science (‘Water and electrolyte metabolism during the treatment of myxoedema’ Clin Sci 1963 Oct;25:293-304). He was appointed professor of metabolic medicine in 1974 and to the established chair of medicine in 1982.

Bob was a supreme clinical scientist who combined his scientific and clinical skills with utmost compassion towards his patients and to his junior staff. He enjoyed testing scientific hypotheses, most particularly in relation to the body’s ability to counter the adversity caused by acidosis. Bob would test and tease his juniors, making them think on their feet prior to methodical investigations both in the laboratory and clinical setting.

Bob remained active in research throughout his life. His research was primarily focused on biochemical functions of the liver, foetal programming and acid base disorders, but his research interests extended well beyond these topics. Bob recalls in his memoirs how Clifford Wilson [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.524], the then professor of medicine at the London (and of Kimmelsteil-Wilson kidney fame), advised Bob to tell his students that the most important body organ was the kidney. Bob respectfully begged to differ by telling the students that the kidney was the second most important organ, second to the liver! Bob and his research group over the years meticulously investigated in vitro and in vivo hepatocyte metabolic function and the responses to alterations in acid-base status. His group were the first to demonstrate the modifications by diabetes mellitus, metabolic acidosis and maternal malnutrition of functional zonation of hepatic lobules, information that continues to inform therapeutic developments.

Bob’s expertise was recognised nationally and internationally and led to his editing The metabolic and molecular basis of acquired disease (Bailliere Tindall, 1990) and writing, at the instigation of Sir Hans Krebs [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.325], the acclaimed definitive text on lactic acidosis with his colleague Frank Woods (Clinical and biochemical aspects of lactic acidosis Oxford, Blackwell Scientific, 1976). Until one year before his death, Bob wrote with Frank the section on acid-base disorders in The Oxford textbook of medicine (Oxford University Press).

A former medical unit lecturer commented on Bob’s ‘razor sharp’ brain, evident at meetings of the Academy of Medical Sciences throughout his retirement, and his notable ability to question even the most eminent of speakers with particularly pertinent comments.

Bob was an active member of numerous educational and grant giving committees of the university, the Medical Research Council and the General Medical Council. He notably chaired from 1994 to 2001 the then Imperial Cancer Research Fund and felicitously oversaw the merger with Cancer Research Campaign to create Cancer Research UK. In recognition of his services to medicine Bob was awarded a CBE in 1997.

Bob’s early interest in hospital computing led to his chairing the Department of Health's computer research and development committee (from 1976 to 1980), before resigning with other colleagues after the rejection of the committee’s proposal to develop an ‘in-house’, economical system for data storage, access and analysis. The decision not to go ahead has been recently described in a review as one of ‘the most expensive mistakes in the history of the NHS’.

Bob played an active role in the Royal College of Physicians throughout his career. He was a pro-censor and censor from 1984 to 1986 and first vice president and senior censor from 1991 to 1993, in addition to chairing a number of RCP committees.

Bob was devoted to his wife, Barbara; they were acknowledged by generations of doctors at the London as tremendous to work for – Barbara’s creative passion for her medicine combined with Bob’s considered erudition. They were devoted to their daughter, Susan, and son, Martin, their son-in-law, David, daughter-in-law, Teresa and five grandsons.

Bob was truthfully a great physician, an outstanding scientist and a good friend to many generations of medical graduates; the medical community is the poorer for his passing.

Peter Kopelman

[Cohen, RD. Corpus hominis: memoirs of an academic physician Matador, 2014]

(Volume XII, page web)

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