Nathan E. Cohen

1909 – 2001

Revered leader bringing people together for productive action

Nathan E. Cohen grew up in the Boston area and graduated from Harvard University where he went on to receive his PhD in experimental psychology in 1934. Throughout his lifelong pioneering career, Dr. Cohen sought to professionalize social work and bring scholarship to social work education. Describing social work as “humanitarianism in search of a method,” he worked to pull together the psychiatric and sociological branches of the field, urging social workers to help individuals by also improving societies.

His first academic post was professor of social work at Columbia University where he also served as associate dean for three years. In 1958 as head of the School of Applied Social Sciences at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Dr. Cohen led a group of students to Selma, Alabama joining with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the historic march there.

Dr. Cohen became professor at UCLA’s School of Social Welfare in 1964, the same year he was elected president of the National Conference on Social Welfare. He launched a doctoral program in social work at the school and served as dean before retiring from the university after 15 years. While dean, he greatly increased minority representation among both students and faculty. After retiring from UCLA, he moved to Berkeley where he and his wife Sylvia were among the founders of the Association for Lifelong Learning (A.L.L.).

Internationally, Dr. Cohen was called upon to review the social welfare programs in several South American countries and given an assignment with the Peace Corps in India. In conjunction with the University of California’s Education Abroad Program, he helped merge three schools of social work into one at the Chinese University in Hong Kong.

A wise and warm mentor, Dr. Cohen served as a special consultant to the National Institute of Mental Health, the Children’s Bureau, and the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. His many publications include “Social Work in the American Tradition” and “Citizen Volunteer”.

His enormous capacity for bringing people with disparate interests together for constructive action was among his greatest talents. The chief such accomplishment was the creation of the largest organization of professional social workers in the world: the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Before 1955, there were seven different organizations of social workers covering those who worked in areas such as schools, psychiatric facilities, medical settings and community organizations. He was a crucial force in gathering them into a group that was large enough to be heard. In 1955 Dr. Cohen became NASW’s first president and today there are over 155,000 members.

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