When Dorrit Cohn ’45 came to Harvard in 1971, the Boston Globe announced: “Harvard University more than doubled the number of female professors on its faculty by appointing six women yesterday.”
Despite the discrimination she sometimes faced as one of the first female academics tenured by Harvard, Cohn, who died earlier this month of complications from Parkinson’s disease, forged a distinguished career in literary scholarship and was remembered this week as an inspiring and inquisitive teacher and friend.
“She wanted to know everything,” said her son Steven Cohn. “Even when she retired, she decided that what she wanted to do most was learn Greek.”
Born Dorrit Zucker-Hale, Cohn left Austria with her family days before Nazi takeover during her childhood. The family eventually made its way to the United States, where Cohn attended high school at New York City’s Lycée Français. There, she learned English, her third language, and embarked upon her lifelong journey of English scholarship. At Radcliffe, however, she decided to major in physics.
“She joked that she wanted to know everything in the world, and physics was the thing that she knew the least about, so why not major in it?” Steven Cohn recalled.
After college, Cohn earned graduate degrees from Yale, Stanford, and Harvard. A lifelong academic, she began her teaching career at Indiana University, where she earned tenure before coming to Harvard in 1971.
“Harvard was a very male place, and breaking through was never that easy,” Steven Cohn said. “In her early years, she had a skiing accident, and she needed a parking place next to Boylston. When she called as herself, she wasn’t given one. The next day, she called and said she was the secretary of a Mr. Cohn—and ‘Mr. Cohn’ was given the parking place immediately.”
Yet Cohn earned her peers’ respect for her scholarship. She was recognized with numerous awards including a Radcliffe Graduate Society Medal in 1982 and Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Award in 1984.
In 2011, the International Society for the Study of Narrative honored her with the Wayne C. Booth Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to the field of narrative studies.
“[Her work] was quite an accomplishment considering that English was her third language,” said Irene Kacandes ’80, a professor of German and comparative literature at Dartmouth who studied under Cohn. “She was an elegant and clear writer, and it was wonderfully generous that she shared her skills with her students.”
Harvard comparative literature professor Susan R. Suleiman recalled that Cohn offered warm support far beyond the classroom. “Once she became your friend, you could really be sure that she would always behave in a way that you could really count on,” she said.
Kacandes added, “Teacher, mentor, scholar—she was the very best in the Harvard faculty. I feel incredibly lucky to have studied under her.”