I. Kelman Cohen, MD, 1935-2019: Paying tribute to a pioneer, mentor and friend
June 9 was another sad day for plastic surgery, when a pioneer and leader in our field, I. Kelman "Kel" Cohen, MD, passed away at age 84.
Dr. Cohen was the founder of the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at the Medical College of Virginia (now MCV campus of Virginia Commonwealth University) in 1972 and remained chair of the division for nearly 25 years. He also established the residency training program in plastic surgery at that institution. He came to Richmond after an NIH research Fellowship – something few, if any, plastic surgeons had done to that point.
With the collaboration of Bob Diegelmann, PhD, a wound-healing laboratory was established, and it maintained federal funding for more than two decades. His devotion to the science and medicine of wound healing led to the formation of the Wound Healing Society, of which he was a founding member and officer. That society has grown into an international organization that brings basic scientists and clinicians together, working to improve our understanding and treatment of conditions associated with tissue repair. His contributions to wound healing, wound care and plastic surgery have been recognized by multiple lifetime achievement awards, including The PSF's Outstanding Achievement in Plastic Surgery Research Award in 2013 for his contributions to evolving the treatment of surgical disorders and the specialty at large.
Kel held a very dear place in my heart – in fact, he's largely responsible for my entry into plastic surgery. I first met Kel during my internship year at MCV in 1987-88. I entered general surgery training with the intention of being a pediatric surgeon and looked for a laboratory position that would help get me to my goal. A young pediatric surgeon, Thomas Krummel, MD, had started a fetal wound-healing laboratory, which worked symbiotically with the plastic surgery wound-healing laboratory. This is where I met Kel. His enthusiasm and support for re- search efforts were inspiring. I gained greater exposure to the specialty through research conferences and presentations at various plastic surgery meetings, including the Plastic Surgery Research Council and the American College of Surgeons Forum.
With Kel's continued support and personal interest in my career, my attraction to plastic surgery grew, eventually transitioning away from pediatric surgery. Kel proved to be that very special mentor: one who took a very personal interest in me – not only in my career, but in me as a person.
In addition to his passions for education, patient care and research, it's safe to say Kel loved food and wine. Some of my fondest memories are of dining with Kel, and being introduced to very fine wine and food in a variety of settings. He didn't just consume, but also prepared – complete with a gourmet kitchen in his home. I vividly remember coming back from the Plastic Surgery Research Council in Charlottesville, Va., after which we went directly to his home, where he prepared a fantastic meal of soft shell crabs. About five years ago, while in Richmond, my wife and I visited Kel and his wife. We shared wine on his patio overlooking the James River, then once again ate a scrumptious meal – again superbly prepared in that gourmet kitchen. It was a wonderful evening filled with reminiscence, as well as looking toward the future.
Kel was a leader and a giant. He helped make plastic surgery a staple of the surgery department at a time when it was first gaining ground in organized and academic medicine. He embraced basic science investigation and the value of research. He was an outspoken individual – never afraid to voice his opinion, while remaining humanistic and respectful of others. He was a deeply caring man who valued friendship and intellect, while remaining forever inquisitive and searching for the next answer. He will surely be missed.