UC Berkeley News


Theodore Cohn

19 July 2006

Theodore E. Cohn, a professor of optometry and bioengineering who was a leading researcher in signal-detection theory and its real-world applications, died on May 25 at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley following a three-year battle with lymphoma. He was 64.


From studying how people pick signals out of cluttered backgrounds, to elucidating neural responses to visual input, to applying that knowledge to design improved traffic-safety devices, his work over 36 years on the Berkeley campus was united by the common theme of vision.

Born in 1941 in Highland Park, Ill., Cohn received a B.S. in electrical engineering from MIT and then attended the University of Michigan, where he received an M.S. in bioengineering in 1965, an M.A. in mathematics in 1966, and a Ph.D. in bioengineering in 1969.

In 1970 he was appointed an assistant professor of physiological optics at Berkeley. When the campus established a bioengineering department in 1998, Cohn played a major role in its development and was given a joint appointment in bioengineering and optometry.

For most of the past 15 years, Cohn worked in the field of transportation engineering, applying his knowledge of vision science to solve practical problems. With his understanding of the way the eye detects visual signals and passes that information to the brain, he was able to develop various kinds of warning systems that provide faster human reaction times. Before he died, Cohn was investigating methods of making railroad crossings safer.

Cohn was admired for taking on projects that required long hours, tact, and patience, such as the initiation of an undergraduate program, Health Arts and Sciences, designed to provide a broad background for students interested in the field of health; the development of a joint program in medical education between UCSF and UC Berkeley; and the management of a building-remodeling program for Berkeley's Minor Hall when the School of Optometry moved there in 1992.

Cohn is survived by his wife Barbara, an epidemiologist with the Public Health Institute in Oakland; sons Avery and Harris, and daughter Adrienne, all of Berkeley; brother David Cohn of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.; sisters Anne Cohn Donnelly of Winnetka, Ill., Amy Cohn Tucker of White Plains, N.Y., and Julie Cohn Connor, of Houston; and mother Marjorie Cohn Pfeffer of Winnetka.

Memorial contributions for a mentorship fund for undergraduate students can be made to the Ted Cohn Mentorship Fund for Undergraduate Research in care of Congregation Beth El, 1301 Oxford St., Berkeley, CA 94709.

Plans for a memorial celebration are pending for the fall.

- Liese Greensfelder

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