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Raquel Eidelman Cohen, last of Harvard Medical School’s first women graduates, dies at 98

Dr. Cohen was a lifelong advocate for women and people of color in medicine.
Dr. Cohen was a lifelong advocate for women and people of color in medicine.

In February 1945, Raquel Eidelman Cohen received an acceptance letter to become one of the first 12 women admitted to Harvard Medical School.

The good news on that slip of paper, she recalled decades later, was “the cornerstone of my life.”

Dr. Cohen, who died at 98 in her Miami home Oct. 21 of complications from a fall, was the last surviving member of the first women who graduated from Harvard Medical School, in the class of 1949.

A lifelong advocate for women and people of color in medicine, she would become a pioneering woman in leadership roles in Greater Boston’s mental health field.

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In her 50s, she took on new challenges defining approaches to counseling disaster survivors. And in her 60s, she moved to Florida to help the state coordinate psychiatric care for Cuban refugee children in the Mariel boatlift.

“My contribution to the field of psychological assistance to survivors of disasters has been one of my most important professional activities,” she told the National Library of Medicine.

Dr. Cohen was a trainer and adviser for disaster intervention into her mid-80s, and she collaborated on journal articles and book chapters into her final months.

“She really loved discovering and she loved learning,” said Dr. Daniel Austin, one of her grandsons, “and she had that continuous passion all her life.”

Her career, including in medical school, was not without challenges, however.

She told the National Library of Medicine’s Changing the Face of Medicine project that she had encountered stereotypical reactions from “male colleagues, supervisors, and heads of departments that did not seem to believe in the skills or seriousness in the commitments of women. Once a male physician wondered why I was not at home taking care of my children and rejected my application.”

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In a 2006 interview for the Women in Medicine Oral History Project, she recalled that for women in her class, “there was a sense of neutrality, of not being there, of not being asked questions.”

Yet because of the extensive media coverage of their groundbreaking accomplishment, “we felt special,” she added.

Even there stereotyping was prevalent. Globe reports about Dr. Cohen and the women in her class appeared under headlines such as “Women doctors prove medicine and homekeeping do mix.”

That headline, for a feature 10 years after the women graduated, included a photo of Dr. Cohen with her three children, ages 10, 8, and 6. She was pregnant with her first child during her final year of medical school.

“There is a great conflict if you want to dedicate yourself to your family,” she said in that 1959 interview. “Continually you are weighing your interests between profession and family.”

The older of two sisters, Raquel Eidelman was born in 1922 in Lima, Peru. Her parents, Samuel Eidelman and Pola Kozac, were Jewish immigrants from Russian who ran a home goods shop.

Though a daughter of immigrants, Dr. Cohen “more than anything identified as Peruvian,” said her daughter Polita Cohen Glynn of Miami. “Her love of Peru was very, very deep.”

Dr. Cohen said that growing up, she was “very lucky because the thing I love the most is to learn and to read and to think.” She read constantly, including about Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and first person to have won two.

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“My big hero in my life has been Madame Curie,” she told Leslie Shoenfeld in the oral history interview.

Having witnessed poverty in her homeland, Dr. Cohen planned to pursue nutrition and child care.

“That’s what really drove her — to alleviate that suffering wherever and however she could,” said her older daughter, Sarita Austin of Colchester, Vt.

But after graduating from the National University of San Marcos in Lima, she was encouraged by her mother to further her studies.

Dr. Cohen consulted with a high-level professional in Lima who told her Boston was the best place for education, so she flew to Miami in 1943 and took a two-day trip to Boston on a train filled with World War II soldiers.

Upon arriving, she asked where the best place was to study nutrition and science and was pointed toward the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Once there, a top administrator said MIT couldn’t accommodate her but added that “there’s another good school in town. Let me see if I can get you an appointment,” she recalled in the oral history.

That led to Harvard, where an administrator suggested she finish a few prerequisite courses at Jackson College, which was then the women’s part of Tufts University.

After completing those studies and a master’s at the Harvard School of Public Health, she planned to return to Peru until professors recommended she get a medical degree, which led her to becoming part of the historic first class that included women.

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“It was luck and wonderful circumstances,” she said in the oral history.

As a medical student, she met Lawrence Cohen on a blind date and they married in 1947.

He was a prominent trial and appellate attorney who died of a heart attack in 1983. Their son, Michael, also was an attorney, died in 2017.

In the oral history, Dr. Cohen said her husband had helped make her medical career possible.

“I delegated everything I could,” she said, adding that he “was a wonderful caretaker of the house and the kids.”

From the outset she held leadership roles, including as chief of the day hospital at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, psychiatric director of the North Suffolk Mental Health Center, and superintendent of the Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center in Boston.

She moved to Miami in 1980 and, by her late 60s, was considering retiring, only to be recruited by Janet Reno, then the state’s attorney for Miami-Dade County, to direct the children’s center in Reno’s office. There, Dr. Cohen designed ways to interview abused children.

Her awards include the American Psychiatric Association’s Simon Bolivar Award for her advocacy on behalf of Hispanic mental health and the Vestermark Psychiatry Educator Award.

“I have always worked for opening doors to women and minorities at every level,” she said in the oral history.

Dr. Cohen formerly taught at Harvard Medical School and at the University of Miami Medical School, where she was a professor emeritus.

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“Teaching,” she said, “has always been part of everything.”

A service will be announced for Dr. Cohen, who in addition to her two daughters and grandson leaves four other grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

Daniel Austin, a cardiac anesthesia fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital, said that when he was an undergraduate working on neurology experiments, his grandmother filled their conversations with inquiries: " ‘What are you doing now? What are you researching?’ She asked questions on a really granular level."

Of the many ways she inspired younger physicians, he said, chief among them was that “her whole world was the pursuit of knowledge. I think that’s been the biggest gift of all. I’m not sure I’ll ever be at that level.”

And for Dr. Cohen, perhaps the greatest gift was the ability to keep working her entire life.

“I am very grateful,” she said in the oral history, “that I can be still useful in terms of my age.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.