Robert E. Cooke, 93; helped create Head Start

Dr. Cooke called Head Start “probably the most successful social experiment of the 20th century.’’

Dr. Cooke called Head Start “probably the most successful social experiment of the 20th century.’’

NEW YORK — Dr. Robert E. Cooke, a pediatrician who helped Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson create Head Start and other initiatives to benefit children, died Feb. 2 at his home in Oak Bluffs, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by his daughter Susan Cooke Anderson.


Dr. Cooke was a professor of pediatrics and the pediatrician in chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in the late 1950s when he began an association with Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of John F. Kennedy, then a senator from Massachusetts, and her husband, R. Sargent Shriver, whose interest in children with intellectual disabilities dovetailed with his own.

The father of two daughters with cri du chat syndrome, a chromosomal defect that results in profound developmental problems, Dr. Cooke became a close adviser to the Shrivers, who ran the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation. Created as a memorial to Eunice Shriver’s oldest brother, who was killed in World War II, the foundation focused on improving the lives of those born with mental defects.

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After the 1960 election, Dr. Cooke joined President-elect Kennedy’s transition team, serving on a task force on health and Social Security led by Wilbur J. Cohen, later an architect of Medicare.

Its recommendations, written in a stifling suite in the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, were the beginnings of a broad program of social services. Its call for a separate entity within the National Institutes of Health devoted to children led to the establishment in 1962 of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, later renamed the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

“We had no secretarial money, we had no per diems, we had nothing; Wilbur Cohen had a portable typewriter,” Dr. Cooke recalled in an oral history in 1996, adding: “It was in November. The heat was on full blast in the Mayflower; you couldn’t open the windows and you couldn’t shut off the heat. We sat there in our shirt sleeves sweating away, while Wilbur with his portable typewriter typed this transition report.”


After Johnson appointed R. Sargent Shriver to lead the administration’s war on poverty in 1964, Dr. Cooke was recruited to head a committee whose recommendations led to Head Start, a comprehensive child development program that promoted early education as well as health, nutrition, and parental education.

Its report, submitted in 1965, became known as the Cooke memorandum, and Head Start was begun on a limited scale that summer. Since then the program has served more than 31 million children, most from low-income families.

Robert Edmond Cooke was born Nov. 13, 1920, in Attleboro. His father was an insurance executive. He graduated from Sheffield Scientific School, then a part of Yale, in 1941 and three years later received his medical degree at Yale. At the end of World War II, he served as an Army doctor, determining the fitness of inductees.

He completed his residency in the early 1950s at what is now Yale-New Haven Hospital.

In addition to Johns Hopkins, where he joined the faculty in 1956 and spent 17 years, Dr. Cooke taught at Yale, the University of Wisconsin, the Medical College of Pennsylvania (now part of Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia) and the State University of New York branch now known as the University at Buffalo, where he became chairman of the school of medicine’s pediatrics department.

Dr. Cooke was a longtime board member and medical adviser for the Special Olympics, founded by Eunice Shriver in the 1960s.

Dr. Cooke’s marriages to Gwen Weymouth and Nancy Perry ended in divorce. In addition to Anderson, he leaves his wife, the former Sharon Riley; two other daughters, Kim Himmelfarb and Anne Ennis; two sons, W. Robert and Christopher; and two grandchildren. His two daughters born with cri du chat, Robyn and Wendy Cooke, died in 1967 and 2005.

In 1996, after President Bill Clinton’s failure to persuade Congress to pass a national health care plan, Dr. Cooke acknowledged that the results of Head Start, especially its early-education component, had been questioned. But he added that its “most convincing” benefits had been in its medical, nutritional, and parental involvement efforts.

“I think it’s probably the most successful social experiment of the 20th century,” he said, “but the remarkable thing was how easy it was to get it going. I mean, as I look back, it was so easy to get the National Institute of Child Health. It was so easy to get mental retardation centers and research centers going.

“Each one of those, I can remember going and testifying before Congress, and it was a matter of a couple of days,” he added. “When I think of the President’s Task Force on National Health Care Reform of the Clinton administration, we spent maybe five bucks and they spent about 15 million. And we got more accomplished.”

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