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William D. Cohen: biologist, educator, editor (1938-2008).

We report with deep regret the death of William D. Cohen, who integrated his interest in cell biology with his special devotion to undergraduate education and his enthusiasm for summer research at the MBL in Woods Hole; he authored several articles for The Biological Bulletin, and also served for 12 years as this journal's Online Associate Editor. On 5 August 2008, after a long struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Bill Cohen passed away at his home in Englewood, New Jersey; he was 70.


As a young boy growing up in New Jersey, Bill was interested in aquatic organisms in ponds and jetties, in biological questions that occur to the young, and even in cell division. Inevitably, perhaps, he majored in biology at Princeton and then, in 1960, crossed the Hudson River to Columbia University and the laboratory of Teru Hayashi, where he did his doctoral research on various models of cell motility. For his postdoctoral work, Bill returned to Princeton in 1966, shifted his focus to the cytoskeleton, and with Lenny Rebhun, began to investigate the biochemical composition and structure of isolated mitotic spindls.

In 1968, Bill accepted a position in the Department of Biological Sciences at Hunter College and the Graduate School of the City University of New York, in Manhattan, where he continued to study and teach for the remainder of his career. But then the Cohen family--he, his wife Marion, and their children, David and Sarah--settled in Englewood, New Jersey; thus Bill spent the remainder of his career shuttling daily between New Jersey and Manhattan. Because he always enjoyed writing, he recorded his observations and impressions of public and automotive transit--features of life in the megalopolis--and the stories are collected at his website: Welcome to (1).

At Hunter, Bill--still interested in cytoskeletal elements--turned to the marginal band, an organelle that occurs in the flattened, elliptical red blood cells of non-mammalian vertebrates and in the thrombocytes of mammals. Marginal bands are composed of continuous bundles of microtubules that create a hoop located in the periphery of the cell, within its plane of flattening. In a series of investigations, Bill and his students and colleagues showed that marginal bands occur widely in the circulating cells of invertebrates from several phyla, in dogfish and amphibians, but also in very young, developing marsupials and in camelids (the requisite exception), which have anucleate, but elliptical erythrocytes. These investigations--many of them on dogfish erythrocytes, a favorite subject--contributed to the concept that the organelles confer and stabilize the elliptical shape of the erythrocyte and also resist the stresses that would deform the cell as it circulates. For Bill, the most memorable of his findings was the discovery that a pair of centrioles is attached to the marginal band in the erythrocytes of blood arcs (a family of bivalve molluscs). Further studies of this relationship, with skates as well as arcs, showed that the centrioles serve as an organizing center for marginal band assembly and so direct the biogenesis of the band. Bill saw marginal bands as a useful "marine model system": thus their investigation in any species would yield results of general interest, and in a comparative study, the differences might provide useful insights.

In 1978, Bill Cohen began to spend summers at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. The MBL's Supply Department provided the animals that he used in his comparison of marginal bands: the sipunculid and polychaete worms, lobsters and crabs, horseshoe crabs, some blood arcs, the skates, and of course the dogfish. And at the MBL, he had the opportunity to meet biologists studying a variety of marine model systems, with whom he could exchange and test ideas, and initiate collaborations. Almost every summer, with the support of his grants, Bill would bring his graduate students to share these opportunities, and to do research and present their results at the MBL's General Scientific Meetings.

But what about undergraduate students? Most students at Hunter College are commuters, so their opportunities to meet and work with other biologists in a professional environment are limited, as were the funds available, in the early 1990s, to support external research experience at places like the MBL. Therefore, when the biology department at Hunter was applying for an Undergraduate Science Education Grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Bill participated in developing the sections that would provide summer research opportunities for undergraduates at the MBL. But realizing that inexperienced students must be introduced to the comprehensive set of basic techniques and procedures used in research laboratories, Bill also designed and wrote a set of tutorial Workbook Modules, frequently updated, that supplies this need; and he also designed and oversaw an undergraduate Research Training Facility, supervised by experienced students, where the work is actually done [see the RFT website (2)]. When the grant was awarded, Bill began to bring four or five students to Woods Hole each summer, where they did research in his laboratory or, occasionally, with one of his MBL colleagues. As promised, these summer activities offered exceptional opportunities. Bill would often remark that one-on-one laboratory instruction, in which a student learns how to acquire new knowledge, is the ultimate form of teaching; it also promoted the long-lasting bonds that he formed with his students.

In Woods Hole, at about the same time, Bill was interested in preserving the practical experience of MBL biologists who had been doing research with non-mammalian marine models, some for many years. He was especially interested in the details of availability, collection, husbandry, and culture of animals, the preparation of their tissues and cells, and the research techniques applied to those preparations--matters not often included in the methods sections of formal journal papers. In the summer of 1992, therefore, he approached the editors of The Biological Bulletin (who were familiar with him as a frequent author and reviewer) about ways to publish such practical information. At this time, electronic publication of academic articles was becoming feasible and was being seriously explored; and the Bulletin's editors had been searching for the types of documents that might especially benefit from the great flexibility, adaptability, and speed of the new medium. The variability of the reports in Bill's proposal, and the need for reorganization and updating seemed to complement the advantages of the technology. Moreover, in discussions with the editors, Bill volunteered to do some of the additional editorial work required to make the project viable. At the end of 1993, therefore, the birth of The Biological Bulletin--Marine Models Electronic Record (BB-MMER) as a new online section of the journal was announced, and Bill Cohen was designated as the Associate Editor in charge of the project. (3)

And he did take charge. In the decade that followed the emergence of the BB-MMER in April, 1994, he confronted the need to fund the project, recruited his MBL colleagues to submit practical papers to this online publication, developed new research resources ancillary to the BB-MMER, and finally designed an online system that would incorporate all of these products. Early on, Bill identified the National Science Foundation as a likely source of funding for the BB-MMER, and organized a joint proposal involving both The Biological Bulletin and the Information Technology Division of the MBL, which would handle the electronic formatting. The proposal was well received, and in 1995, funds were granted to develop a prototype that would clarify the design, operation, and potential community of the BB-MMER.

Recruiting submissions for an electronic journal was not easy in the 1990s. Bill and his students wrote a paper on the utility of smooth dogfish erythrocytes for the BB-MMER and saw to the review and publication of four other submissions. He also developed three additional online resources as companions to the BB-MMER; but because of his interest in preserving and providing access to older, forgotten data, he was especially proud of the Compendia, and the Classic Resources. The Compendia are reviewed compilations of data and procedures that are useful to researchers, but scattered among many papers, in many journals, some old and in archives. Three compendia were compiled and produced by Bill himself: physiological solutions, egg characteristics and breeding seasons, and invertebrate anesthetics and relaxants. The Classic Resources is, at present, a set of five old, but still valuable, manuals or methods papers. Of the remaining companions, The Keys to the Marine Invertebrates of the Woods Hole Region had been compiled in 1964, and are still useful. Bill had both the Keys and the Classics scanned and made available online. He also bundled the BB-MMER and its three companions, still on the MBL website, under the rubric "Biological Bulletin Publications ("

By 2000, Bill Cohen had decided to design a web portal with a separate site for an expandable set of marine model organisms. At each site, diverse information about that species would be accessible from all available sources, including the BB-MMER and its associated online companions. Three years later, he had developed the outlines of such a design, and by 2005, the design had been sufficiently developed that it was posted on a test site for review. Bill had also appointed a dozen editors, each of whom had agreed to oversee the collection and review of data on one of the portal's species-specific sites.

As the final design of the web portal was being developed, Bill and his students were starting to study the cytoskeletal events underlying the eccentric meiosis in the egg of the surf clam Spisula solidissima. It was a new project, and his last; and the students prepared step-by-step protocols, images, and related information, not only for the Spisula site on the web portal, but also as an aid for their peers, who would come in the following year. The results, reported at the General Scientific Meetings of the MBL, were published in the Biological Bulletin, (4) and the striking figures were displayed on the cover of that issue. The subtle surf clam pattern on the background of the cover was designed and drawn by Bill Cohen, reflecting his perception that, though we celebrate the remarkable structures and functions of cells and subcellular elements, we should not forget the package from which they came. (5)

Bill was ill in 2005, and in 2006 he wrote to tell us that his condition had deteriorated markedly. "I am sorry I have not been able to help with the model organism website, but please feel free to work on it as you may wish," he wrote. "I am still determined to keep doing things I enjoy as long as possible, including mentoring my HHMI students at MBL this summer, even if I have to do it in part by video conference." And so he did. His students did continue their studies of polar body formation in Spisula; he did mentor them; and they did submit a publishable paper to this journal. In May 2007, the president of Hunter College conferred on Bill a Lifetime Achievement Award for Mentoring undergraduates, which he had continued doing long after his retirement in June, 2003. He could not be at the ceremony, but his students (a.k.a. the Polar Buddies) were.

Two or three times a summer, Bill would climb up to our offices on the top floor of the Homestead building (often using the fire escape, which he said was easier than the stairs) to discuss BB-MMER matters, and sometimes others. And it was always a pleasure to see him, because he was enthusiastic about working with the journal, and his perspective about many things tended to be humorous and at least slightly different from what one expected, which brightens the day--especially for an editor. But there was so much about Bill that we never knew--for example, that he was an authentic athlete. Many people have spoken of his prowess in tennis: his particular attraction to doubles, and his special ability to place the ball where his adversaries were not. Indeed he had been playing tennis since high school, and had joined with Andrew Szent-Gyorgyi as a doubles partner in MBL tournaments.

But still other sides of Bill Cohen are hidden at Welcome to (1); in addition to his commuter notes, one finds a collection of "oddities and whimsies": pictures and poems, drawn and written by Bill and aimed at children, or child-like adults. Among this collection is a nerdie bird that began life as a doodle--but a keeper doodle--that ended on the wall behind Bill's desk. The bird's name is Ornie, and from time to time he seems to have spoken to Bill of life, nature, and philosophy from a bird's point of view. Ornie and his ruminations remind us of Bill, but we'll miss the real guy and his visits with us, up here at the top of the fire escape.


(1) Cohen, W. D. No date. Welcome to Whimsies and Oddities by Bill Cohen. [Online]. Available http:/ [October 24, 2008].

(2) Department of Biological Sciences, Hunter College of CUNY, Undergraduate Research Techniques Facility. No date. Workbook Modules. [Online] Available [October 24, 2008].

(3) Greenberg, M. J. 1993. An animal resources section and a marine models electronic record for The Biological Bulletin. Biol Bull. 185: 333-334.

(4) Pielak, R. M., V. A. Gaysinskaya, and W. D. Cohen. 2003. Cytoskeletal events preceding polar body formation in activated Spisula eggs. Biol. Bull. 205: 192-193.

(5) The Biological Bulletin. 2003. Cover. Biol. Bull. 205(2): front matter. Also available online at [Note: a good bright screen is required to visualize the details in the black background.]

--Michael J. Greenberg

Editor-in-Chief (1989-2004)
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Author:Greenberg, Michael J.
Publication:The Biological Bulletin
Article Type:Obituary
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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