Nathan E. Cohen, pioneer of social welfare, dies at 91

As a young psychology researcher studying in Mussolini's Italy, watching wave after wave of Black Shirts marching beneath his window had a profound effect on Nathan Edward Cohen.

The sight soured him on "running rats in the laboratory," he once told an interviewer, spurring him to address broader social concerns.

In the 65 years since, Cohen co-founded the National Association of Social Workers, testified before Congress, edited and penned a number of scholarly books and studies, and was active in Jewish and civil rights causes.

Cohen — who moved to Berkeley after serving as dean of UCLA's School of Social Welfare from 1964 to 1979 — died in his Oakland home on Jan. 27. He was 91.

"Probably the strongest thread of my father's character was his commitment to social justice. I think he would have very much traced that back to Judaism and his Jewish roots," said Susan Cohen, a Berkeley resident. "He stayed interested in politics and social problems until the day he died. He had a great long life and a wonderful old age."

Born in 1909 in Derry, N.H., Cohen was raised in the Boston area, receiving a doctorate in experimental psychology from Harvard in 1934. After his yearlong stint abroad studying on a Sheldon Fellowship, he returned to the United States to work with a number of Jewish organizations.

Between 1935 and 1945, Cohen directed the Boston YMHA, headed the Springfield, Mass., Jewish Community Welfare Fund, worked with the National Jewish Welfare Board and directed a Jewish center.

Cohen became one of the most influential social welfare policymakers in the nation in the late 1940s, serving as a professor and associate dean at Columbia University. He co-founded the National Council on Social Work Education, helping to shape curricula across the nation.

As a professor at the School of Applied Social Sciences at Western Reserve University in Cleveland (now part of Case Western Reserve), Cohen led a group of students to Selma, Ala., to march with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1958.

Landing at UCLA in 1964, Cohen pulled together a team of researchers to investigate the social causes underlying the explosive Watts riot of 1965, writing "The Los Angeles Riot Study."

After moving to Berkeley, Cohen and his wife, Sylvia, founded a group called Association for Lifelong Learning. Cohen was still leading current events discussions until less than a year ago.

Nathan Edward Cohen is survived by his wife of 66 years, Sylvia; his three children: David H. Cohen of New York City; Edward Ned Cohen of Loomis and Susan A. Cohen of Berkeley; 11 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

The Cohen family requests that all donations be sent to the UCLA foundation for the Nathan E. Cohen Doctoral Student Award in Social Welfare c/o Department Chair, Social Welfare Department, UCLA, Box 951656, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1656.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.