This Day in Jewish History / A Man Who Dared to Study Proteins Is Born

Edwin Cohn brought the first insights into a field his peers preferred to bypass for its sheer complexity.

David Green
David B. Green
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A wounded soldier being given blood plasma after a battle in World War II.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
David Green
David B. Green

December 17, 1892, is the birthdate of Edwin Cohn, a hard-driving medical researcher who dared to pour himself into the study of proteins, a vastly difficult mission shirked by his peers, but one that ended up having far-reaching therapeutic implications.

Edwin Joseph Cohn was born in New York City, the youngest of the four children of Abraham Cohn and the former Mamie Einstein. Abraham was a successful tobacco grower and merchant who owned farms in Georgia, but lived most of the year in New York. Edwin lacked for nothing growing up.

George Scatchard, a classmate of Cohn’s at Amherst College who later became a close colleague and friend, drily described his early, unfavorable impression of him as an “esthete,” who, “If he did not have the best of everything had the most expensive.”

After two years at Amherst, where he studied literature and art, Cohn realized he wanted to be a scientist, and transferred to the University of Chicago. He received a B.Sc. in chemistry in 1914, then went on to complete a Ph.D. there.

It was while working on his doctorate that he resolved to focus on the study of proteins, a far-from-obvious choice at the time, when very little was known about the structure or function of these all-important, enormously complex organic molecules, and not even a prototype of the centrifuge, a laboratory tool essential to work with proteins, existed yet.

War and bread detour

During World War I, Cohn took a detour from his research to work on the science of bread-making for the U.S. Sanitary Corps, in order to develop non-wheat sources for flour. In 1920, he began working as a physical chemist at Harvard University, and remained there until the end of his life.

In 1917, Cohn married Marianne Brettauer, the daughter of a New York gynecologist. Not only was she a close personal companion, but she also began studying biology, to be able to assist him in the lab. She died in 1948.

Known for having an eye for talent, Cohn assembled a large and highly skilled lab team at Harvard. He was a demanding and sometimes harsh boss, but he was also respected for his concern for his younger colleagues and their professional development.

In the 1920s, Cohn’s research focused on the physical chemistry of proteins, and during the following decade, he began to develop an understanding of the structure and properties of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Though today this may seem unlikely, less than a century ago, it was not understood that these complex molecules had the same chemical and electrical properties as other substances, and that their behavior could be predicted.

During World War II, Cohn’s lab went into high gear in its efforts to fractionate blood plasma: that is, to break it down into its components, based on their density. Each part of blood plasma – including serum albumin, fibrogens and globulin – was found to have a therapeutic application. On the battlefield, for example, the isolation of serum albumin would play an important role in treating shock, saving thousands of lives during the war.

Cohn believed that no part of donated blood should be wasted, and developed techniques for the safe collection and differentiation of blood. His work thus combined keen intellectual vision with technological innovation and creativity.

Cohn’s passion for his work took its toll, however. He was known to demonstrate his fractionation machine publicly on his own blood: One time, in Mexico, a blockage in the machine led to an explosion and the showering of Cohn’s blood onto audience members in the rows closest to him.

More significantly, Cohn was diagnosed with high blood pressure in 1931, and urged by his doctors to slow down. He did spend a sabbatical year with his family in Europe, but what he saw during several months in Germany greatly disturbed him, particularly as a Jew, and when he returned to work, he pushed himself with renewed determination.

His final years were busy, both socially (he remarried after Marianne’s death) and professionally. Shortly before his death, of cerebral hemorrhage on October 1, 1953, Cohn founded the Protein Foundation, now called the Center for Blood Research.