Lawrence Baruch Cohen

Brian Salzberg, Dick Tsien, and Larry Cohen in Woods Hole. Credit: Brian Salzberg
Brian Salzberg, Dick Tsien, and Larry Cohen in Woods Hole. Credit: Brian Salzberg

With sadness we share the passing of MBL Emeritus Society member Lawrence Baruch Cohen who died on April 19, 2023, following an automobile accident. The MBL flag will be lowered in his memory.

For nearly 50 years, Dr. Cohen (a scientist at Yale School of Medicine) spent his summers conducting research at the MBL. He first came to Woods Hole in 1962 as a student in the Physiology course. He returned in the late 1960s as a principal investigator and had a MBL lab most summers until 2016. In more recent years he had an office in the MBLWHOI Library.

Dr. Cohen pioneered the study of brain activity using electro-optical measures. In 1973 at the MBL, he, along with Vicencio Davila and Brian Salzberg, made the first optical recording of a neuron firing, which sparked the field of functional neuroimaging.

In 2015 Dr. Cohen talked about his life and work at the MBL for the MBL History Project. In addition, his work was profiled in the Fall 2012 issue of MBL Catalyst magazine.

Dr. Cohen is survived by his two sons, Daniel and Avrum, his daughter Lily, his grandsons Zev, Samuel, and Jason, his sisters Miriam, Debbie, Jenny, Hermine, and Rena, his brothers Teddy and Ben Zion, and his former wife, Barbara Ehrlich. An obituary provided by his family and colleagues is below. They are planning a celebration of life to be held this summer in Woods Hole.

Lawrence Baruch Cohen died on April 19th, 2023 in Providence, Rhode Island, following an automobile accident. He was born on June 18, 1939, in Indianapolis, Indiana. He graduated from the University of Chicago and obtained his Ph.D. degree in Zoology from Columbia University. Larry pioneered the application of optical methods to Neuroscience and Cell Physiology.

Larry began to explore optical approaches to membrane function (light scattering and birefringence) in the late 1960s when he was still a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Richard D. Keynes at the University of Cambridge. During the next fifty-five years, Larry became the dominant figure in developing and applying optical methods in cell physiology, biophysics, and neuroscience. Indeed, most of the myriad current techniques involving photonic measurements can be traced to Larry’s direct initiation or his active involvement. Beginning in the early 1970s, Larry began using voltage-clamped squid giant axons to screen literally thousands of substances, first fluorescent, and then merely colored, for their voltage sensitivity and freedom from phototoxicity. In 1972, Larry and his collaborators showed that Merocyanine 540, the first sensitive molecular indicator of membrane potential (potentiometric dye), could be used to record the action potential, without averaging, from squid giant axons. In 1973, again using Merocyanine 540, Larry and colleagues monitored electrical activity from an individual leech sensory neuron, and this was the first optical recording from a real intact neuron. Then, in 1977, Larry’s lab showed that as many as fourteen barnacle neurons could be monitored simultaneously, and individually, using voltage-sensitive absorbance dyes. Action potentials and synaptic potentials, both excitatory and inhibitory, could be recorded for many seconds. This began the era of optical recording from many neurons simultaneously, culminating in the recording of hundreds of neurons from preparations as diverse as invertebrate ganglia and mammalian cortices. Among many highlights from this period was the demonstration that simple learning paradigms in invertebrates involved the participation of hundreds of neurons. In nearly five decades, several thousand plausibly potentiometric probes have been synthesized and assayed, and, in the last two decades, Larry has been in the forefront of exploring genetically encoded voltage-sensitive proteins. The vast majority of these molecules absorb and emit in the visible region of the spectrum and many have found wide application in studies of cell and tissue physiology. Now, the spectral range of voltage-sensitive dyes has been extended far into the red and into the infra-red. Not only will these molecular probes permit their use in tissues like the retina that are sensitive to photons in the visible, but longer wavelength excitation and emission will enable enhanced light penetration in three-dimensional structures like the heart and brain, where the spatiotemporal patterns of activity are neither simple nor always superficial. Among the earliest suggested applications of voltage-sensitive dyes was their potential use in probing membrane voltage at otherwise inaccessible regions of cells, perhaps best exemplified by the transverse tubular system of skeletal muscle. These were quickly realized, as were many more uses for these molecular voltmeters. From intramolecular profiling of the dynamic electric field to cortical and subcortical mapping of brain activity, Larry’s work and influence on optical recording of membrane potential and changes in intracellular calcium in particular, and optical methods in cell physiology in general have enlightened us all.

More personally, Larry had a remarkable quickness of mind and analytical ability. This was often belied by his slowness of speech, which usually reflected consideration and caution. He also evinced an unusual talent for recognizing important outstanding problems in his area of interest, and in other areas as well. As a result, he was usually far in advance of his field, as had been the case with organic dye indicators and genetically encoded voltage sensors. Despite his numerous achievements and his distinction, Larry remained a thoroughly modest and unassuming man. He was also an exceptional mentor to scores of students, postdocs, and collaborators, many of whom went on to distinguished careers in several areas related to light and imaging. For nearly half a century he remained a welcoming, humble, and very social character – opening his home to all of his friends and colleagues, in New Haven as well as in Woods Hole. The parties at his house brought together so many scientists from all over the world, and many friendships were formed, across fields, continents, and generations of researchers. His jokes were legendary, as was his love of sweet wine, cheese, popcorn, and Persian pistachios.

From the earliest reports of optical probes of membrane potential, from Larry’s laboratory, ambitious ideas for the application of these molecular indicators to the study of the central nervous system were never far from his consciousness. The tantalizing metaphor popularized by Sherrington, the “enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of subpatterns,” drove scientists, led by Larry, to learn more about the brain, that “great raveled knot.” The exploration of the central nervous system, much abetted by optical methods, is barely in its infancy. Already, many new observations have been reported, and many more are undoubtedly to come. These observations, barely conceivable without functional optical mapping using potentiometric probes, and now, genetically encoded voltage-sensitive proteins, pioneered by Larry and his colleagues, are only beginning. Indeed, the era in which optical methods, especially fluorescence, but also absorbance, birefringence, and light scattering, are applied to an extremely large range of biological preparations, could not have occurred without Larry’s pioneering and extremely fruitful work. His profound insights and wry humor influenced generations of students, colleagues, and friends around the world. He will be sorely missed.

Larry is survived by his two sons, Daniel and Avrum, his daughter Lily, his grandsons Zev, Samuel, and Jason, his sisters Miriam, Debbie, Jenny, Hermine, and Rena, his brothers Teddy and Ben Zion, and his former wife, Barbara Ehrlich.

[Based partially on the Preface written for the Special Issue of Neurophotonics honoring Larry: Neurophotonics 2015 Apr; 2(2):021001]