Peter F. Cohn, MD: History buff, novelist and pioneer in silent myocardial ischemia
Peter F. Cohn, MD, played a major role in the widespread acceptance of silent myocardial ischemia as an important syndrome in the spectrum of CAD. When not practicing medicine, he writes fictional novels about cardiologists that have World War II subplots.
Cohn is professor of medicine and chief of cardiology emeritus at State University of New York Health Sciences Center at Stony Brook. He grew up in New York City as the son of a pediatrician who strongly influenced him to become a physician. After taking advantage of the opportunity to “skip” grades in the New York City school system, Cohn left the Bronx High School of Science after his junior year and entered Columbia University at age 15 years and then Columbia Medical School at age 19 years.
After internal medicine training in New York City and military service with the 8th Army in Korea, Cohn traveled to Boston in 1969 for a cardiology fellowship and subsequent faculty positions at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and Harvard Medical School, where he developed strong research interests in CAD. Both Cohn and his wife, Joan, a psychotherapist, enjoyed their time in Boston, where their two sons were born, but returned to the New York metropolitan area in 1981 when Cohn became the founding chief of the cardiology division at the newly opened Stony Brook University Medical Center, a position he held for 22 years. He has also served as president for the New York Cardiological Society and the New York State Chapter of the American College of Cardiology.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not practicing medicine?
I am only working 3 days a week at present, so I have more time to enjoy the cultural life of New York City, where my wife, Joan, and I live. We regularly go to the theater, symphony, ballet and, occasionally, the opera. We also enjoy time with our sons’ families and four grandchildren.
If you hadn’t gone into cardiology or medicine, what would you have done?
I would have been a history professor. I am a WWII military buff and am especially interested in the decade of 1935 to 1945.
I have combined my love of history by writing novels about cardiologists with WWII subplots. I have been writing fiction since college, although I didn’t take it seriously until it became a hobby and change of pace from writing medical texts. I used the pen name Alan N. Clifford — my two sons are Alan and Clifford; this is the first time I am revealing my pen name — for my first book, The Fatherland Files, and my newly published second novel, Heart of Wisdom. The first book is based on a trip I took to Frankfurt, Germany, when colleagues and I stumbled upon a scenario that could easily have led to a neo-Nazi conspiracy. The second book is based on a true story about an academic cheating scandal involving one of the protagonist’s protégés. A key element of the story is the protagonist’s experience in the WWII Bataan Death March.
What would you consider one of your biggest successes in your specialty?
Along with several colleagues in the United States and abroad, I was honored to play a major role in the popularization and ultimate acceptance of silent myocardial ischemia as an important syndrome in the spectrum of CAD. I was sole author of Silent Myocardial Ischemia and Infarction, a textbook that enjoyed great acceptance through its four editions and which became the authoritative text on the subject during the ’70s and ’80s when silent ischemia was not accepted by everyone in medicine. It was books such as this and other articles from my colleagues that enabled the widespread acceptance of silent myocardial ischemia. I’ve also co-written two medical texts on CVD for the general public with my wife, Joan: Heart Talk and Fighting the Silent Killer.
What is the last book you read?
ln keeping with my interest in WWII, I am now reading The Guns at Last Light, the last book in Rick Atkinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historical Liberation Trilogy. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in WWII.
Whom do you most admire and what would you ask that person if you had 5 minutes with him/her?
It is no surprise that I would love to sit down with Franklin D. Roosevelt, the dominant American figure as president from 1933 to 1945. I am most interested to hear his “real” views on the national and international crises of that period.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Never quit; if you want something badly enough, go for it. When we first started our research into silent myocardial ischemia and there was a great amount of skepticism, the advice I received from friends and mentors to never quit was encouraging and turned out to be correct.
Whom do you consider a mentor?
The two most dominant figures in my professional life were Richard Gorlin, MD, and Eugene Braunwald, MD — true giants in the world of cardiology. I was exposed to both at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (now the Brigham and Women’s Hospital) where Dr. Gorlin was the chief of cardiology and Dr. Braunwald was the chief of medicine. Each proved invaluable, not only in my own career but in helping me to become a better mentor to the young men and women who trained at the Brigham and later at Stony Brook.
What kind of diet and exercise regimen do you follow?
My diet can best be described as all things in moderation plus a glass of wine! New York City is a great city to walk in, and that is what my wife and I do a lot of. My jogging days are long over, although I still enjoy biking and kayaking as seasonal activities.
What do you think will have the biggest influence on cardiology in the next 10 years?
The electronic medical record — for better or worse — is already having a huge impact. You can see the value in the long run; it’s going to be helpful. But, in the short term, there are glitches and problems in training physicians to use it properly. I often joke when I have a question that I ought to call my 4-year-old grandson because he is probably more computer savvy than me.
The use of hand-held imaging devices for bedside diagnosis will also see greater use. If you suspect that there’s a malfunction in the heart or blood vessels, you can actually detect that on the spot.
What is your favorite travel destination?
Joan and I have traveled extensively in connection with my cardiology activities to many great places. India has certainly been special.
What is your favorite restaurant?
One of my favorites is Nick & Toni’s Café on West 67th Street in New York City. It is a truly delightful neighborhood restaurant with great food and service. – by Alexandra Todak