Pioneer electrencephalographer, accomplished clinical neurologist,
neurophysiological experimenter, and prized teacher—Robert Cohn, M.D.,
was all of these in the course of a prodigiously productive career that
spanned 70 years. His integrative knowledge of brain function was equal to
that of an entire panel of experts.
In 1935, while a medical student, he began work as an assistant scientist
at st. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. There his mentor was Karl
Langenstrass, M.D., who had trained at the University of Jena under Hans
Berger, discoverer of brain waves. Langenstrass was eager to establish an EEG
lab at St. Elizabeths and asked his young assistant to undertake this
Cohn's first step was to build his own EEG machine. This he accomplished
with advice from such eminent electrophysiologists as Hallowell Davis at
harvard and his engineer, Albert Grass, as well as scientists from the
Magnetic Laboratory of the U.S. Bureau of Standards. In addition, Cohn
attended evening advanced physics classes given by world-renowned physicists
Edward Teller at George Washington University and Karl Herzfeld at the
Catholic University of America.
In establishing his EEG lab, Cohn made it a personal rule, never
relinquished, to conduct an interview and neurological examination with each
patient referred for an EEG. He followed this rule when asked to record EEGs
on a series of patients presumed to be suffering organically based muteness.
He was not at all surprised when the patients talked back to him; the
researcher who had referred the "mute" patients was
World War II brought additional demands on Cohn's lab, the only EEG
facility in the Washington, D.C., area. All military neurological patients
needing EEG evaluation were sent to him, including aviation cadets to be
screened for any disqualifying evidence of epileptic propensities.
In 1943 he assumed active duty as a Navy medical officer and took charge of
the EEG laboratory at the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Md. In
addition, he made EEG recordings during deep-sea diving experiments directed
by famed Navy diving expert "Swede" Momsen. During one experiment
Cohn realized the EEG tracing had gone flat and, despite his inability to
swim, dove into the tank and rescued the unconscious diver.
Subsequent to the war, Cohn continued full time at the Naval hospital and
in his spare time conducted a series of important electrophysiological
experiments. He contributed to the understanding of left brain-right brain
function by demonstrating that noise and verbal stimuli are processed by
different sides of the brain. Among his other research were extensive studies
on the visual system of the cat and on a variety of evoked sensory summation
activities of the human brain.
In 1971 he began yet another multifaceted career at Howard University
School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., as a professor of clinical
neurophysiology and chief of the EEG laboratory. He became an inspiring legend
and continued full time at Howard until his death at the age of 96 in
Cohn was a mainstay in national and international EEG organizations. He and
Vladimir Liberson cofounded the Eastern Association of Encephalographers.
Before coming to the United States, Liberson had been a pioneer
electroencephalogapher in France. At his death in 1994 he left a mass of
notes, many in Cyrillic script, for his intended memoirs. At the request of
Liberson's widow, Cohn edited these into a book, published in 1999 and titled
Brain, Nerves, Muscles, and Electricity. My Life in Science.
Cohn's own publications included more than 90 papers and six books,
including two on clinical electroencephalography and two on aphasia. The
latest was Clinical Electroencephalography: A Computerized Approach
(2004). This reported his exhaustive endeavors in collaboration with Steve
Ousley to achieve computer reading of the EEG, his dominant research passion
for the last three decades of his life.
He cowrote several papers with his wife, Meta Neumann, a world-renowned
neuroscientist at St. Elizabeths Hospital and a leader in differentiating
Alzheimer's disease from arteriosclerotic and other forms of brain
degeneration. She also earned the gratitude of several generations of
neurologists and psychiatrists in the D.C. area for her refresher course in
neuroanatomy and neuropathology in preparation for board examinations.▪