Edwin Cohn Biography

Scientist Edwin Cohn helped develop a method of separating blood plasma proteins, which provided lifesaving care to many soldiers during World War II.


Biochemist Edwin Cohn was born in New York City on December 17, 1892. He spent most of his career at Harvard University. There he helped develop a process of blood fractionation, which separated the proteins in blood plasma. These plasma fractions provided lifesaving treatments during World War II and beyond. Cohn died at the age of 60 on October 1, 1953, in Boston.

Early Life

Edwin Joseph Cohn was born in New York City on December 17, 1892, the youngest of four children. His father was a successful tobacco merchant, which allowed Cohn to grow up in comfort. Cohn attended Amherst College, but transferred to the University of Chicago when he decided to pursue a scientific career.

Early Scientific Career

After completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago, Cohn went on to receive his Ph.D. from the university in 1917. He chose to focus his scientific work on the study of proteins. With the entry of the United States into World War I, Cohn studied the proteins in bread, hoping to discover a way to cope with wartime wheat shortages.

Cohn moved to Harvard Medical School in 1920. There he worked on a liver extract that successfully treated pernicious anemia, though he was unable to isolate the active agent. He also began to study amino acids and peptides, the building blocks of proteins.

Work During World War II

As war broke out around the world, Cohn helped develop a process of blood fractionation, which separated the different proteins in blood plasma. Plasma fractions from human blood provided valuable medical treatments. One fraction, serum albumin, helped save patients who were in shock. Serum albumin from Cohn's lab was used to treat some of those wounded in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

With serum albumin in high demand as World War II raged on, Cohn oversaw the efforts to produce large quantities of this plasma fraction. A perfectionist, Cohn made sure that the industrial production sites met his high quality standards. As it became more available, serum albumin was often used on the battlefield, saving countless lives.

Other plasma fractions also helped patients. Gamma globulin fractions, which contain antibodies, were used to treat measles during the war. Gamma globulins were later the main recourse for fighting polio, up until the arrival of the polio vaccine.

Death and Legacy

In 1948, President Harry S. Truman awarded Edwin Cohn a Medal of Merit for his blood fractionation work. Feeling the importance of continuing to contribute to the public health, Cohn pressed on with his research, which included work on a machine designed to separate blood into its cellular components.

After years of ignoring his doctors' advice about controlling his high blood pressure, Cohn collapsed in his office after having a massive stroke. He died in Boston on October 1, 1953, at the age of 60. Today Cohn is remembered for his dedicated work that led to lifesaving treatments for soldiers and civilians alike.

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