Mary D. Cohen: Former UB scholar devoted life to humanitarian causes

by Rachel Teaman

Published September 10, 2020


Mary D. Cohen, a lifelong educator and former researcher with UB’s Health in Housing Institute (HIH) who passed away earlier this summer at 91, leaves a diverse legacy of community-building work.

Her contributions span design solutions for healthy housing, teaching resources for youth, humane treatment of animals in medical research, and a passion for entomology that reached deep into communities from Buffalo to Brazil.

profile of Mary Cohen.

Mary D. Cohen, a former researcher with UB's Health in Housing Institute who had a passion for insects and a drive to teach and write, passed away earlier this summer at age 91.

Mary was also partner in life and learning to Harold L. Cohen, professor and dean of the School of Architecture and Planning from 1974-1984. Harold and Mary met while he was teaching at the Institute of Design in Chicago in 1950 and were married in 1951.

The pair co-directed UB’s Health in Housing Institute (HIH), a World Health Organization collaborating center, from its 1985 founding through their retirement in 1991. A collaboration of UB’s School of Architecture and Planning and School of Public Health and Health Professions, the institute develops research and design solutions for the built environment to improve health for all. Mary was also the editor for all of HIH articles, papers and books published during their tenure.

A polymath who dedicated her life to teaching and research, Mary held a bachelor's degree in English Literature from Indiana University, Bloomington and a master's degree in American English from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, where Harold served as founding director of Carbondale’s internationally recognized design department. Mary also completed her PhD in Education coursework from Catholic University, Washington, D.C.

Mary and Harold were trained by Dr. Donald Duckworth, senior entomologist at the Smithsonian Institute, a passion she had picked up from Harold early in their marriage of 68 years. The two traveled the world together, from the cloud forests of Venezuela to every continent except the Arctic and Antarctic, in pursuit of rare species of insects. The Cohens donated the majority of their collection to the Buffalo Museum of Science with the balance of the collection to the Carnegie Mellon Institute in Pittsburg.

Upon arriving in Buffalo in 1974, when Harold assumed the role of dean of UB’s “School of Architecture and Environmental Design,” Mary immersed herself in the Buffalo community. For 16 years, from 1975-2001, Mary oversaw the entomological department for the Buffalo Museum of Science. In this role she created courses and exhibits for school-aged children, including “Jewels on the Wing” and “Insect World” at the Buffalo Museum of Science. Both Mary and Harold designed the Museum’s Insect Hall, a permanent exhibition for two decades.

Harold, who remains in Buffalo and continues his work as a printmaker, painter and artist, recalls Mary’s generous spirit. “She loved people and children – she wanted to teach people about the natural world and our relationship to it.”

Such interest in human behavior, science and the natural world shaped both Cohens in their research with HIH. Mary was very much within the intellectual orbit of the Carbondale program, serving as editor of two major publications by R. Buckminster Fuller, a world-renowned American architect, systems theorist and self-described “design scientist” who taught at Carbondale in the late 1960s.

Through UB’s HIH, the Cohens were instrumental in pursuing new directions in public health and medicine that sought to draw upon indigenous practices from around the world. Perhaps the most notable research to come from the Cohen’s tenure with the institute was a project in the late 1980s to control infestations of the Chagas bug, which spread a debilitating disease across much of Central and South America. The two-year “WHO Project for the Control of Chagas Disease,” which included an insect trap designed by Harold and a publication written by Mary, was pilot-tested in Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela.

“We stayed a year in the jungle,” says Harold, referring to their field work in Venezuela. “Everything I touched, we did together.”

Alfred Price, UB professor emeritus of urban planning and associate dean emeritus and one of Harold’s first recruits as dean, became close friends with both Cohens. He says Mary was a brilliant scientist and researcher. Recalling a Health in Housing Institute project Mary helped lead in Honduras, where the spread of bacterial disease due to improper hygiene was becoming particularly problematic for women, he says it was Mary who came up with the solution.

 “The research team determined the source was fecal matter trapped under long fingernails,” says Price. “The assumption in medicine at the time was always that it had to be a high-tech solution. It was Mary who came up with the idea that distributing free nailclippers could address the issue at its source.”

He adds, “She was at her happiest when she was doing that kind of work, especially when it had a humanitarian bent.”

Several faculty members recall Mary as a fixture in the School community – gregarious and magnanimous in personality and core to the program’s familial and collegial culture.

Dean Robert Shibley, who was recruited by Harold in 1982 to serve as chair of the School’s emergent architecture department, says Mary played a significant role in his decision to accept the offer, as well as his partner Lynda Schneekloth's acceptance of a faculty position with the School. 

“Harold and Mary both flew to Washington, D.C. to personally recruit us," says Shibley. "I give Mary credit for introducing me and Lynda to ‘Harold and Mary’ as human beings, and to the School as family – this was a place, a community, where we wanted to be.”

Edward Steinfeld, a SUNY Distinguished Professor of Architecture and director of UB’s IDEA Center, which now helps to oversee the Health in Housing Institute, says Mary and Harold were inspirational as dedicated partners in life and work. “They were always together. And when they were together, they were like one person.”

Harold, who oversaw the School during a period of expanded engagement in Buffalo, says Mary was a binding force between UB and the community. “She was instrumental for people liking the School of Architecture and Planning.”

Mary’s scholarly contributions also include innovative curricula developed with UB’s education program, among them “The Natural World,” a science program for at-risk high school students, and “Introduction to Entomology,” a course for Canisius College. When the Cohens were stationed in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s, she worked on curriculum development at Northern Virginia Community College, developing a pivotal resource for junior high school teachers and students on “Teenagers’ Rights and Responsibilities.”

A memorial service in celebration of Mary’s life will be held when the world is COVID safe. She is survived by children Jano Cohen, Lore Devra Levin and David Cohen, daughter-in-law Margaret Cohen, and grandchildren Jessica Cohen-Nowak and Adam Cohen-Nowak.