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Institute Professor Morris Cohen dies

Morris Cohen
Morris Cohen

Morris Cohen, a world-renowned metallurgist and MIT institute professor who received both the National Medal of Science and the Kyoto Prize for Advanced Technology, died May 27 at his home in Swampscott, Mass. He was 93.

A memorial service, hosted by the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, will be held Nov. 29 at 4 p.m. in the MIT Chapel. For more information, call 617-253-6936 or e-mail

Cohen made major contributions to the understanding of the structure of matter and the ways in which materials such as iron and steel can be processed. His work has been central to the development of modern high-strength steels.

"Professor Cohen was one of the giants in the international community of metallurgists during a significant part of the twentieth century. The impact of his work and his leadership was appreciated and admired throughout the world", said Subra Suresh, Ford Professor of Engineering and head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

"This gracious gentleman transformed the discipline of metallurgy via his intellect, vision and personal effort into modern materials science and engineering. The modern catholic view of materials science and engineering he fostered at MIT continues to influence the materials field worldwide to this day," said Edwin L. Thomas, Morris Cohen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and director of the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies.

A native of Chelsea, Mass., Cohen became interested in metals as an outgrowth of his family's business in producing and refining the lead-based alloys used in type and solders.

Cohen received the S.B. and Sc.D. degrees in metallurgy from MIT in 1933 and 1936, respectively.

He joined the MIT faculty in 1936, becoming a full professor of physical metallurgy in 1946. He retired in 1987.

"MIT is favored with many great intellects and people who impact the world. Morris Cohen was both. He was a very modest person, and one who has had enormous impact on the field," Thomas said.

Cohen paved the way for materials science and engineering to emerge from its roots in metallurgy, thanks to the influential report, "Materials and Man's Needs," which he wrote for the National Academy's Committee on the Survey of Materials Science.

His faculty colleagues recognized his achievements in research and teaching by awarding him a Ford professorship in 1962; an Institute professorship, the faculty's highest honor, in 1974; and the James R. Killian Faculty Achievement Award in 1974.

The Killian selection committee described Cohen as a "major force" whose place in science history was "ensured."

He received numerous national and international awards and honors during his career. The National Medal of Science, this country's most prestigious scientific award, was presented to Cohen in 1976. He was awarded the Kyoto Prize, Japan's highest scientific honor for "contributions to human progress," in 1987.

Cohen was an inspiring figure to all who knew and worked with him. In celebration of his 75th birthday, individual and corporate donors established the Morris Cohen Professorship in Materials Science and Engineering, announced at the department's centennial celebration in June 1988.

Thomas has held the Cohen chair since 1989.

An oil portrait of Cohen, which hangs in the Chipman Room (8-314), also reminds the MIT community of his contributions to science and education. Commissioned by the Materials Science and Engineering Department and painted by Marblehead artist Anthony Iarrobino, the portrait shows Cohen with items of personal significance in the background-a bust of Moses Maimonides, the 12th century Hebrew scholar; a crystal structure of cementite; and a text on martensite, a hardening material of steel that Cohen studied for many years.

Cohen's wife, Ruth (Krentzman) Cohen, and a daughter, Barbara (Cohen) Nordwind, predeceased him.

He is survived by a son and daughter-in-law, Joel and Sara Cohen of San Rafael, Calif.; two sisters, Louise Plansky of Los Angeles and Charlotte Freed of Chestnut Hill, Mass.; three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Cohen was a founder and past president of Temple Sinai in Marblehead, Mass.

Memorial week will be held at his late residence through Sunday. Donations in Cohen's memory may be made to the Jewish Federation of the North Shore, 21 Front St., Salem, MA 01970.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 1, 2005 (download PDF).

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