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February 19, 2009

Obituary: William I. Cohen

William I. Cohen, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry, died of a heart attack Feb. 6, 2009, while inline skating with friends in Miami Beach. He was 62.

A developmental-behavioral pediatrician in Children’s Hospital’s child development unit, he directed the hospital’s Down Syndrome Center.

He also was co-director of the School of Medicine’s medical interviewing and advanced medical interviewing courses.

Cohen earned a bachelor’s degree in Russian linguistics at the University of Rochester and a master’s degree in Russian literature at the University of Chicago. He attended medical school at the State University of New York-Buffalo, graduating in 1975. He performed his pediatric internship, residency and fellowship training at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Cohen’s work with Down syndrome patients and their families was known internationally. He was a member of the clinical advisory board of the National Down Syndrome Society and the scientific advisory board for the Down Syndrome Research and Treatment Foundation. He co-founded and was co-chair of the Down Syndrome Medical Interest Group, which established health care guidelines for children with Down syndrome.

Cohen’s work was recognized with many awards, including awards in 2004 and 2005 for outstanding clinical care at Children’s Hospital. He was among the first School of Medicine faculty members appointed to the Academy of Master Educators.

Down Syndrome Center coordinator Sheila Cannon said Cohen was a smart and compassionate man with a wide range of interests. He sang with the Renaissance City Men’s Choir and enjoyed opera and musical theatre. He loved inline skating, Cannon said, noting that Cohen not only skated with a local group but also traveled to inline skating events in Philadelphia, Barcelona and Paris. He was in Miami for an annual skating event when he died.

Cannon became acquainted with Cohen 20 years ago as the parent of a Down syndrome child, and later began working with him at the center.

“He was a great listener,” she said, citing his ability to swiftly hone in on patients’ — and colleagues’— worries. “He had a way of genuine listening,” she said. “Families would remark to me that he made them feel as though their child was his only patient.”

Listening also was a key factor in his teaching objectives, which focused on helping medical students learn effective doctor-patient communication, Cannon said.

Valerie L. Fulmer, the standardized patient educator in the School of Medicine’s Advanced Clinical Education Center, worked closely with Cohen in his role as course director for the school’s medical interviewing classes. “He really was the driving force behind a lot of the communications courses we run,” she said. “We are going to have to fill his shoes somehow.”

Fulmer said Cohen was “very accessible” to the clinical education staff and the standardized patients — professionals who play the role of patients enabling medical students to practice their interviewing and examination skills before encountering actual patients.

“I never felt like ‘just a staff member’,” Fulmer said, adding that the standardized patients respected Cohen for treating them as equals and making himself available for their questions during their training sessions. “To have a faculty member come in and share his perspective on the needs of the students and the program carried a lot of weight.”

Although Cohen received international acclaim, he was able to look at people for who they really are, Fulmer said, by being generous with his thanks for the part the standardized patients played in the medical students’ education. “He was constantly bringing everybody up,” Fulmer said. “We really appreciate that he would take the time to show he really appreciated us.”

Fulmer said Cohen’s enthusiasm for students’ learning was evident when he substituted for other faculty members in the class sessions in which students and standardized patients learned to interact. “He would always jump in to teach the students,” she said. “Their learning would bloom while he was there. Afterward he’d come out and tell about all the learning experiences the students had. He’d see the understanding on their faces. That excited him.”

Family medicine professor Donald B. Middleton, Cohen’s co-director in the medical interviewing course, commended Cohen’s skill in enhancing the quality of the program. “He knew the SPs by name, knew their strengths and weaknesses. He would counsel them. He brought the program to where it was.”

Middleton said, “He was committed to the idea that students should be able to learn in a safe environment, without feeling judged. In 30 years, I must have heard him talk about safe teaching a thousand times.”

Cohen believed in valuing people for who they are “and he actually had the academic credentials to make a difference in how people approach problems,” Middleton said, citing Cohen’s influence in guiding doctors on the management of childhood diseases. “His Down syndrome guide is the guide for clinicians,” Middleton said.

“He was a world-class leader. He affected thousands of lives in a positive manner.”

Cohen is survived by his partner, Donald Arnheim; his mother, Ethel Cohen; a daughter, Sarah Cohen; a son, Benjamin Cohen, and a brother, Alan Cohen.

Memorial contributions may be made to the National Down Syndrome Society, New York (, the Down Syndrome Research and Treatment Foundation ( or the Down Syndrome Association of Pittsburgh (

— Kimberly K. Barlow

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