Harvey Jay Cohen, MD, never planned to go into geriatrics. It wasn’t a word he heard in medical school in the 1960s. In fact, he hadn’t planned to go to medical school either. Once there, he certainly wasn’t planning to become a clinician--he just wanted to do research. Even after deciding to become a clinician-scientist, he chose hematology-oncology as his specialty. He never gave geriatrics a thought.
But life has a way of presenting opportunities, and Dr. Cohen has a way of saying yes.
“You’ve got to stay open to interesting opportunities,” he says. “If you think you would enjoy it, and you have a skill set that seems to match it, give it a shot.”
Today, at age 78, Cohen, the Walter Kempner Professor of Medicine, is considered a leading pioneer in the field of geriatrics.
“He’s one of the fathers of geriatrics nationally, not just at Duke,” says Cathleen Colón-Emeric, MD, professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Geriatrics, who trained at Duke and counts Cohen as an important mentor.
Mary Klotman, MD, dean of the Duke University School of Medicine agrees. “He’s an iconic figure in geriatric health,” she says. “Harvey has positioned Duke as a national leader in this field.”
And down the road at the University of North Carolina, Hyman Muss, MD, says, “Harvey continues to be a relentless leader in this field.” Muss, who holds the Mary Jones Hudson Distinguished Professorship in Geriatric Oncology, has known Cohen for decades, as a research collaborator, a co-chair of a national committee on geriatric oncology, and as a friend.
Harvey Cohen in the early years.
Courtesy of Duke Medical Library Archives.
Cohen arrived at Duke in 1965 for his internal medicine residency. Since then, he has held numerous leadership positions, including chair of the Department of Medicine (twice, once as interim), director of the Duke Center for Aging (for almost 40 years), chief of the Division of Geriatrics (which he founded), and director of the Durham VA Medical Center’s Geriatrics Research, Education and Clinical Center (which he helped get funded).
Beyond Duke, he has served as president of the American Geriatrics Society, the Gerontological Society of America, and the International Society of Geriatric Oncology.
For the past several years, he has been gradually stepping down from his many administrative roles. He admits he’s a bit tired of “the administrative stuff” and besides, he wants to open up leadership opportunities for the younger people he’s mentored.
On June 30, 2019, he shed the last of his administrative roles when he turned over the reins of the Duke Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development to Heather Whitson, MD, MHS, associate professor of medicine (Geriatrics) and ophthalmology.
But don’t think Cohen’s retiring. He’s still all-in on research, education, and mentorship.
And refereeing the annual Turkey Bowl between VA and Duke internal medicine residents.
And playing in the annual house staff vs. faculty basketball game at Cameron.
Although he’s been a basketball player all his life, in recent games he’s spent more time on the bench than on the court: “There’s one place I feel my age,” he says. “I can’t run as fast or jump as high.” Still, he’s kept the same trim physique he’s always had. He stays in shape by walking where he needs to go on campus.
And he goes a lot of places on campus.
“He is everywhere,” says Diana McNeill, MD, professor of medicine (Endocrinology, Metabolism, and Nutrition). “You go to any departmental event, any medical center event, he’s there. His energy is contagious. When he talks, people stop and listen not only as a sign of respect but because he’s really wicked smart.”
This story was written by Mary-Russell Roberson, a freelance writer in Durham. She covers the geriatrics and aging beat for the Department of Medicine in the Duke University School of Medicine.