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Topic: [HM] Dear Friends and Neighbors.
Replies: 12   Last Post: Oct 8, 2003 11:17 AM

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Judy Grabiner

Posts: 22
Registered: 12/3/04
[HM] Obituary of I Bernard Cohen
Posted: Jun 23, 2003 1:01 PM
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Dear Colleagues,

I attach an obituary forwarded to me by George Smith, which
he says was written by him and Everett Mendelsohn.
Bernard was one of my thesis advisors. He was a giant in
the field and a great human being. We are all diminished
by his loss.

Judith V. Grabiner
Flora Sanborn Pitzer Professor of Mathematics
Pitzer College (909) 607-3160

I. Bernard Cohen, Victor S. Thomas Professor of the History
of Science Emeritus at Harvard University and one of the
pioneering generation who established the study of the history
of science in America, died at his home in Waltham,
Massachusetts on Friday, June 20, 2003 at the age of 89.
Although Cohen's research in the history of science covered
a wide range of topics, he was best known for his work on Isaac
Newton, the dominant figure of the scientific revolution and
widely chosen as the most important person of the millennium.
Cohen, together with the Latinist Anne Miller Whitman, who
died in 1984, prepared the first complete English translation
of Newton's Principia Mathematica since 1729. At the time of
this translation's publication in 1999, Cohen commented, "I
hope that, decades from now, when I and my other books have
been forgotten, this will still be useful to scholars and

Born in Far Rockaway, Long Island, on March 1, 1914, Cohen
graduated from Columbia Grammar School in New York City at
the age of 15. After twice entering New York University as
a freshman, only to leave at the end of a semester, and a
brief period of study of veterinary medicine at the
Farmingdale Agricultural Institute, Cohen attended the
Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania before
entering Harvard as a freshman in 1933. He remained at
Harvard until his retirement in 1984, and even then
continued to teach courses in the Harvard Extension School
and seminars for undergraduates through 2000.

Cohen received the B.S. degree in 1937, concentrating in
mathematics. In 1947 he became the first American to receive
a PhD in the history of science, having entered Harvard's
Program in the History of Science and Learning a year after
it was initiated by President James B. Conant in 1936.
Cohen's teaching career at Harvard began in 1942 during
World War II when he taught physics and mathematics to Navy
personnel brought to campus for intensive learning. He
taught undergraduate and graduate courses in history of
science from 1946 on, chairing the graduate program for two
decades and ultimately helping to transform this program
into a Department. In 1977 he was named Victor S. Thomas
Professor of the History of Science. Starting with the
first in 1948, graduate students across four decades
completed their PhD dissertations under his supervision,
in the process receiving continual support and encouragement
from him and his first wife, Frances Davis Cohen, who died
in 1982. At the time of his retirement in 1984, a group of
former students and colleagues published a volume in his
honor, Transformations and Transitions in Science, edited
by his long time colleague and former PhD student, Everrett

Working with Conant in the 1940s, Cohen helped to establish
Harvard's General Education program, in which he taught a
popular course for undergraduates on the "Nature and Growth
of the Physical Sciences." He subsequently taught an
equally popular course, on the "Scientific Revolution," in
Harvard's Core program, which had replaced General Education.
Generations of Harvard students were introduced to the
sciences through Cohen's use of the history of scientific
ideas and practices. Physical demonstrations, audio-visual
materials, and a high degree of lecturing drama made his
courses memorable. A byproduct of his early undergraduate
teaching of science to non-scientists was his book, "The Birth
of a New Physics", which was originally published in 1959 and
has been translated into many languages, including Chinese,
Danish, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, Spanish, and

Cohen's first book, a new edition of Benjamin Franklin's
Experiments and Observations in Electricity published in 1941,
became his PhD dissertation, at the suggestion of Crane
Brinton and Cohen's mentor, George Sarton. The outline he
had presented as the original proposal for his dissertation
grew into his 600 page study, Franklin and Newton, An Inquiry
into Speculative Newtonian Experimental Science and Franklin's
Work in Electricity as an Example Thereof, published in 1956.
He wrote several popular works on Franklin and other figures
in early American science, including Science and American
Society in the First Century of the Republic, published in
1961, and most recently his Science and the Founding Fathers,
Science in the Political Thought of Jefferson, Franklin,
Adams, and Madison, published in 1995.

In 1957 Cohen joined with the historian and philosopher
Alexandre Koyr????, then at the Institute for Advanced Study
in Princeton, New Jersey, on the monumental project of
preparing a variorum edition of Newton's Principia,
covering not only its three published editions, but also
the original manuscript and the voluminous corrections
and annotations that Newton had made in his personal copies.
After Koyr???? fell ill in 1962 and died two years later, the
burden of this effort fell on Cohen, with the able assistance
of Anne Whitman, who had received her B.A. from Harvard in
1959. The 900 page variorum edition was published in 1972,
a year after Cohen's 380 page Introduction to Newton's
'Principia', which provides a history of the composition of
Newton's masterpiece and its subsequent editions. According
to Cohens friend and fellow Newton scholar, George Smith,
the Acting Director of the Dibner Institute for the History
of Science and Technology at MIT, unlike most of what we
historians and philosophers of science produce, both the
variorum edition and the new translation will surely be
standard reading for those drawn to Newton far beyond a
hundred years from now.

In addition to these two special editions of Newton's Principia,
Cohen published such books on Newton as The Newtonian Revolution
in 1980 (originally delivered as the Wiles Lectures at Belfast
University), A Guide to Newton's Principia, which accompanies
the English translation, and his more general study,
Revolution in Science, published in 1985, which reaches from
Copernicus through Einstein. During the last ten years alone
he co-edited three books on Newton, and over five decades he
provided introductions and chapters to numerous other books
on seventeenth and eighteenth century science. In addition
to his more than 20 books, he published over 150 articles
during his sixty year career, ranging from learned to popular
journals. His thirteen articles in Scientific American from
1948 to 1992 covered such diverse topics as Franklin, Newton,
Charles Darwin, Stephen Hales, Christopher Columbus, Florence
Nightingale, and an interview with Albert Einstein shortly
before he died.

Although Cohen's primary focus was on Newton and science in
the early United States, several other areas have benefitted
from his attention. During the 1960s and 70s he participated
in Harvard's Seminar on Science and Public Policy. This led
to interest in the ways in which the natural sciences came to
furnish models and concepts for the social and behavioral
sciences, which culminated in his book of 1994, Interactions:
Some Contacts between the Natural Sciences and the Social
Sciences. He developed an interest in the early 1950s in
computers, consulting for IBM for many years and serving as
co-editor of the MIT Press series, History of Computing, in
which his own book, Howard Aiken: Portrait of a Computing
Pioneer appeared in 1999. The manuscript of his last book,
The Triumph of Numbers, was mailed to the publisher one week
before he died.

During his retirement Cohen occupied the Bern Dibner Chair
in the History of Science at Brandeis University for a year,
and he was an Adjunct Professor of the Philosophy Department
of Boston College throughout much of the 1990s.

Cohen served as President of the History of Science Society
of the United States as well as President of the International
Union of the History and Philosophy of Science. He was
managing editor of Isis, the journal of the History of Science
Society, under its founding editor George Sarton from 1947 to
1952, replacing Sarton as editor from 1952 to 1958. In
addition to having been a Guggenheim Fellow and a National
Science Foundation Senior Postdoctoral Fellow, he served as
a vice-president of both the American Academy of Arts and
Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of
Science. He was also an Honorary Life Member of the New York
Academy of Science, a Benjamin Franklin Fellow of the Royal
Society of Arts, a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society,
a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, and a member
of the International Academy of the History of Science.

He received honorary degrees from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute,
George Washington University, and the University of Bologna, the
latter on the occasion of the 900th Anniversary of its founding.
He was elected a Fellow of University College, London, Clare
College, Cambridge, and Churchill College, Cambridge, as well
as to the American Philosophical Society. He was awarded the
George Sarton Medal of the History of Science Society in 1974,
the Pfizer Prize of this same society in 1986 for his Revolution
in Science, and a Centennial Medal from the Harvard Graduate
School of Arts and Sciences in 1998.

Cohen leaves his wife of nineteen years, Susan Johnson, a
daughter Dr. Frances Cohen and granddaughter Angelica Koch
of New York, and two stepsons, David Johnson of St. Louis
and Benjamin Johnson of New York. Cohen will be remembered
at a service to be held at 11 a.m. on July 3 at the Follen
Community Church in Lexington, Massachusetts, and a memorial
service at Harvard University is being planned for the fall.

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