DOM Centennial Spotlight: Harvey J. Cohen, MD, ‘Father of Geriatrics’

The Duke Department of Medicine (DOM) joins Duke University in looking back at the people who have had an impact within our Department over the years. These individuals have contributed to the Department’s trajectory in providing equitable and compassionate patient care, training our next generation of physician leaders with excellence, and developing new therapies to improve the lives of patients in our community and beyond. 

In his more than a half century at Duke, Harvey J. Cohen, MD, the Walter Kempner Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Director Emeritus of the Duke Aging Center, has become an iconic, leading pioneer in geriatric health and positioned Duke as a national leader in the field.  

In his 56 years of practicing medicine, Dr. Cohen—‘the father of geriatrics’ as colleagues and grateful mentees have described him—has become part of Duke’s foundation, and an embodiment of its core values that he has passed on to trainees over the decades.  

Fresh from Downstate Medical College in Brooklyn, Dr. Cohen arrived at Duke in 1965 for his residency and excelled as a mentor, researcher and leader. He is the (twice) former chair of the Department of Medicine, former director of the Aging Center for almost 40 years, founder and former chief of the division of Geriatrics, director of the Durham VA Medical Center’s Geriatrics Research, Education and Clinical Center (GRECC), and founding principal investigator of the NIA-funded Claude Pepper Older Americans Independence Center at Duke, which he led for over 25 years.  

He has also led national and international professional societies, written 17 books on geriatrics and geriatric oncology, contributed to 452 peer-reviewed research articles and 90 chapters of medical literature, and received many prestigious awards.  

After his residency, and a two-year research stint at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Cohen completed a hematology-oncology fellowship at Duke and joined the faculty specializing in multiple myeloma. In 1975, he was named chief of medicine at the Durham VA, where he created the geriatrics fellowship program and set up a Geriatric Evaluation and Treatment clinic. 

“The VA recognized that its cohort of vets was aging at a faster clip than the general population,” Cohen told Magnify magazine in a 2019 interview, “and in a very far-sighted way thought we ought to do something about that.” 

He established GRECC (there are now 20 nationwide) at the VA in the early 1980s, assumed the director’s role of the Aging Center, and soon after founded the division of Geriatrics to house it all administratively. He then became active in national organizations to help shape the new and growing field of geriatrics, and to promote the Duke program.  

Dr. Cohen also incorporated geriatrics into his research, showing that increased blood levels of the signaling protein IL6, which is associated with inflammation, were predictive of functional disability in the elderly. He later worked on geriatric assessment to inform treatment decisions, which has become an established part of clinical care in the U.S. and other parts of the world, and was further instrumental in applying the assessment to geriatric oncology patients. 

In 2019, he handed the Aging Center helm over to Dr. Heather Whitson as he pulled back from some administrative duties to spend more time creating leadership opportunities for students he has mentored.  

Most recently, Dr. Cohen received the 2023-2024 Duke University Presidential Award in recognition of those who exemplify the University’s core values of respect, trust, inclusion, discovery and excellence. 

At age 83, Dr. Cohen said he has no plans for retirement.