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Douglas Harry Cohen (1920–2011)

by Richard Cohen

As a tribute to Dr Douglas Cohen on his retirement as the head of paediatric surgery at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, Camperdown, in 1985, the Douglas Cohen Department of Surgery was established in his name, to recognise his 35 years of service to the health and safety of Australia's children.

He had been made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1980, and his passion for, and commitment to, the wellbeing of children continued through his life.

Douglas Harry Cohen was born in Clovelly, on February 10, 1920, the son of Leslie and Susan Cohen (nee Solomon). He went to Sydney Grammar School, then graduated in medicine from the University of Sydney in 1942.

In 1943, he married Lysbeth Sloman, completed his residency and joined the army. He developed an interest in surgery while he was serving in Morotai and Borneo before being repatriated in 1946.

Cohen then entered general practice in Dulwich Hill, having always been of the opinion that doctors who completed some time in general practice made better "all-round" practitioners. In 1949 he completed a master of surgery and after a year at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital training in general surgery, he became a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.

A year later, at a time when paediatric specialists were rare, he accepted a temporary position in surgery at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children and the following year was appointed assistant surgeon.

Cohen credited the influence of three men as being paramount in his future as a specialist paediatric surgeon – Sir Lorimer Dods, the first professor of child health in Australia, Dr Tom Nelson, the senior surgeon at the Children's Hospital, and Dr Joseph Steigrad. Under their influence Cohen developed an interest in cardiac and thoracic surgery for children. He gained further experience at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London in 1954 and returned to Australia to practise exclusively in paediatric surgery, one of the first surgeons to do so.

Heart surgery for children was still in its early days and Cohen and the anaesthetist Dr Victor Hercus joined forces with a pump engineer, Viv Ebsary, to design and build the first heart-lung machine in Sydney.

This allowed operating time to stretch from just a few minutes to five or six hours, permitting much more complicated surgery to be performed on children and many more lives to be saved. These were the early days of open-heart surgery and working on such small patients was inherently dangerous. The evolution of this new technology propelled paediatric cardiac surgery forward.

Over the years, Cohen published and delivered many papers, lectured, travelled to keep abreast of new developments in child surgery, held many honorary positions and was awarded life memberships of the British, Australian and Canadian associations of paediatric surgeons.

He also maintained keen interests in tennis and sailing, and was frequently spotted out on Sydney Harbour in his much-loved yacht, Galaxy.

After years of seeing children admitted to the hospital with horrific injuries, Cohen helped to establish, and was the first chairman of, the Child Accident Prevention Foundation of Australia (now Kidsafe).

During the latter part of his career, Cohen shifted his focus from cardiac conditions to the treatment of malignant diseases.

He could also see a need to treat not just the sick child but to include the whole family in the process and worked with a committee to set up the first Ronald McDonald House in Camperdown in 1981.

The challenges facing a paediatrician sparked an interest in medical ethics. Cohen was appointed to the NSW Medical Board and was a medical consultant to the Medical Complaints Board. In 1993 he published his book, Medical Ethics in Clinical Practice.

In 1985, two years after his retirement, Lysbeth died of cancer. Cohen later married Joy Moss and went to live in Britain, where he held a position as honorary consultant to the Child Accident Prevention Trust at Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Following Joy's death in 2003, Cohen returned to Australia and moved into retirement accommodation in Kincumber. He is survived by his children, Susan and Richard, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Richard Cohen, 'Cohen, Douglas Harry (1920–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 16 April 2024.

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