Stanley Cohen was 97 when he died on February 5th, 2020. This is the Stanley Cohen who discovered epidermal growth factor. He followed the path of so many immigrants and children of immigrants and benefited the USA and humanity with lives of extraordinary achievement.
Cohen was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 17, 1922. He was the son of Fannie (née Feitel) and Louis Cohen, a tailor. His parents were Jewish immigrants. Cohen received his bachelor’s degree in 1943 from Brooklyn College, where he had double-majored in chemistry and biology. After working as a bacteriologist at a milk processing plant to earn money, he received his Master of Arts in zoology from Oberlin College in 1945. He earned a doctorate from the department of biochemistry at the University of Michigan in 1948.
Working with Rita Levi-Montalcini (co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1986) at Washington University in St. Louis in the 1950s, Cohen isolated nerve growth factor and then went on to discover epidermal growth factor. He continued his research on cellular growth factors after joining the faculty of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in 1959. His research on cellular growth factors has proven fundamental to understanding the development of cancer and designing anti-cancer drugs. Cohen retired from Vanderbilt University in 1999. Cohen also received the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University together with Rita Levi-Montalcini in 1983 and the National Medal of Science in 1986.
Incidentally, Rita Levi-Montalcini, (1909- 2012), one of Stanley Cohen collaborators and co-recipient of the Nobel Prize, was born in Italy, and her life story reads like a movie. When she was fired from her job by the fascists for being a Jew, she set up a laboratory in her bedroom and continued her research. When she went into hiding in Florence, she went on with her research in the room she shared with the others. She survived Mussolini and the nazi occupation to discover growth factors and benefit our lives (and skin) immensely. You can watch her in a documentary here (she appears at 55 minutes).
I love reading about scientists who lived big lives and went on to make big discoveries. I would like our readers to appreciate that these two great scientists (and great human beings) did not start their work wanting to make discoveries that could be applied on products. They did basic research and elucidated major pathways’ the knowledge they accumulated we now use to produce skin products.