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Biographical entry Cohen, Bertram (1918 - 2014)

CBE 1982; BDS Witwatersrand 1942; HDD RCS Edin 1947; MSD Northwestern 1948; DDS Witwatersrand 1959; FDS RCS 1961; FFD RCSI 1964; FRCPath 1965; FDS RCS Edin 1967; DDSc Newcastle 1981; FRCS 1984.

27 August 1918
Johannesburg, South Africa
19 March 2014
Dental scientist and Oral pathologist


Bert was the first Nuffield research professor of dental science at the Royal College of Surgeons. He was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, the third of four children of Pauline (née Soloveychik) and Morris Cohen, Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. His grandfather, Shmuel, had opened a wholesale grocery in downtown Johannesburg. Bert was educated at King Edward VII School, Johannesburg, and at the University of Witwatersrand, where he was president of the Student Dental Society and the All Sports' Committee of the University. He played first team cricket and squash, and conducted original research on oral disease in the Bantu as an undergraduate. He qualified in dentistry in 1942 and was awarded the Henry St John Randall medal as the most distinguished student of his year. This was judged not only on academic excellence, but also on the record of student activities and athletics, conduct and personality.

Bert joined the South African Medical Corps and became a dental officer. He kept a remarkable war diary, tracing his progress to Egypt and then, in the bitter Italian Campaign, from Taranto to Bellagio, where his war ended beside Lake Como.

He was appointed to the whole time staff of the Oral and Dental Hospital at Witwatersrand in 1946. Within six months he won the Montgomery Ward fellowship to Northwestern University, Chicago, where he was awarded a masters degree by thesis. During this period, he also obtained the higher dental diploma from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, (the forerunner to the fellowship in dental surgery).

He returned to Witwatersrand as a senior lecturer and quickly showed himself to be a talented teacher and innovative research scientist, securing important research grants. He was appointed chairman of the scientific programme committee of the International Conference of the Dental Association of South Africa. In 1954, he was the first dentist to be awarded a Cecil John Adams memorial travelling fellowship and spent a year in the section of morbid anatomy and the radiopathology research unit of the Medical Research Council, attached to the Hammersmith Hospital in London. He conducted research into salivary gland function and bone pathology.

Once again he returned to South Africa, and then came the event which was to shape the rest of his life, and the lives of many others. He applied for the Leverhulme research fellowship in the department of dental science at the Royal College of Surgeons. In his original application he stated: 'It would be my sincere desire to serve the College to the limits of my capacities by seeking to advance the standards and the status of dental science.' One of his referees spoke of Bert's early recognition 'that fundamental research in dental pathology must be based upon the principles of general human pathology'. This important principle became the lodestar of his approach to the science of dentistry.

He took up the fellowship at the Royal College of Surgeons in January 1957. In 1960 he was appointed as the first Nuffield research professor of dental science and director of the department. He occupied this position with great distinction for 23 years. He was a prolific researcher and an inspiration and father figure to generations of younger colleagues. He had broad interests in the pathology of oral and dental disease, and his world-leading research into dental caries, and his work to develop a vaccine to prevent it, formed a central part of his endeavours over 20 years. Much of the research was undertaken at the research station at Downe. A successful vaccine was not achieved, but his department contributed to the understanding of this common disease in a way that has influenced research and patient care ever since. He also demonstrated innovative thinking on the susceptibility to the other common dental problem, periodontal disease.

In 1980 he delivered a Charles Tomes lecture on 'Problems peculiar to oral pathology'. The same year he gave a memorable Vicary lecture - 'A tale of two paintings', in which he presented elegant research to prove the provenance of the two Holbein paintings belonging to the Company of Barbers and the Royal College of Surgeons. In 1982 he presented a Hunterian lecture entitled 'An inquiry into the decay of teeth'. It wove a magical path from John Hunter through to contemporary academic research.

He was highly respected as a diagnostic oral pathologist in the field of head and neck cancer and had published important papers on the typing of tumours for the World Health Organization as far back as 1970. In 1976 he co-edited a seminal compendium Scientific foundations of dentistry (London, Heinemann Medical). This included 60 contributions from the most prominent scientists of the day from all around the world. He served as president of the British Society for Oral Pathology in 1979 and president of the section of odontology of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1981. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in dental science by the University of Newcastle in 1981, a rare honour. He gained fellowships of the dental faculties of the English, Edinburgh and Irish Royal Colleges. He was awarded an honorary FRCS by the English College and was a fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists. In 1982 he was appointed CBE.

He was a member of the far-reaching Nuffield Inquiry into Dental Education in the UK in 1980, and had a major influence upon the direction of the subsequent review. This considered personnel auxiliary to dentistry, and changed the way the dental team would deliver care.

When he retired from the Royal College of Surgeons in 1983, he joined the tumour panel of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, and continued in this role for another decade. He recalled this period as particularly fulfilling and enjoyable.

In 1984, he was elected to the board of trustees of the Hunterian Collection and was an outstanding chairman from 1996 to 1999. He was the first dentist to hold this position. To become one of the guardians of the great scientific collection of John Hunter, the father of scientific surgery, was a particular joy to him and he continued on the board until 2010. After 26 years, he was one of the longest serving trustees in the board's 200-year history.

Bert was a kind man with a big presence and captivating warmth. He was a charismatic and often demanding leader within the Royal College of Surgeons for over half a century. He was a scientist of great energy, an articulate speaker, a fluent writer and always an upholder of the highest traditional standards and courtesy. His interest in all people, the arts and literature, made him one of those rare individuals who can properly be called a polymath. He was proud to be a member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St Andrews, and maintained a passion for golf throughout his very long life.

Bert Cohen died on 19 March 2014, aged 95. He was survived by his beloved Hazel, whom he married in 1950. They had no children, but were surrounded by a devoted family, all of whom adored their Uncle Bert.

David Barnard

Sources used to compile this entry: [New York Times 8 April 2014 - accessed 5 June 2014; The Guardian 10 April 2014 - accessed 5 June 2014; tributes delivered by Richard Ibbetson and Simon Chaplin, 22 April 2014; Sir Paul Bramley and Newell Johnson.

The Royal College of Surgeons of England