In Memoriam: Emory L. Cowen (1926-2000)

Writing an obituary for a treasured friend and colleague engenders both sadness and satisfaction. Sadness because it punctures another hole in your heart, satisfaction because you can put into words, however inadequate, why you treasured his presence. I have a list of individuals whom I consider underappreciated in American psychology, and Emory is on that list. By training he was a clinical psychologist, an atypical one, who long before it became fashionable to take the prevention of problems seriously, had started a research program that spanned decades, ending with his death on November 3, 2000, from leukemia. How do you spot at-risk, primary grade children and develop means to do something about it? And how can you do it not by referring them to clinical agencies external to the classroom and school but by developing means adaptable to the realities of classrooms and schools, teachers, and parents? And crucially, could you demonstrate that the intervention had the desired positive outcomes? These are some of the questions he was concerned with.

The fact is that Emory was a very rigorous researcher who knew the difference between opinion and fact, and between a one-time finding and the bedrock importance of replication. He was an obsessive-compulsive researcher, a very healthy, productive one. (There is no category in the pseudo-scientific, statistical, diagnostic manuals of the American Psychiatric Association – manuals deceptively “objective” and pathologically obsessive and compulsive – for the likes of Emory Cowen.)

In 2000, the American Psychological Association published a 511-page book, The Promotions of Wellness in Children and Adolescence. It was edited by a long-time colleague of Emory, Dante Cicchetti, and three of Emory’s former students: Julian Rappaport, Irwin Sandler, and Roger Weissberg. The book was dedicated to Emory. It is a step-by-step account of a research program, the applications of which were introduced into and sustained by several thousand American schools as well as in European schools.

Prevention, schools, community psychology: these are not arenas in what you would call the mainstream of American psychology; therefore, Emory Cowen is not a well-known figure and what he accomplished has not received the recognition it deserved and still deserves. I cannot put my opinion other than in this way: He should have been given the Distinguished Scientific Award of the APA and the Life Time Contribution in the Public Interest Award of the American Psychological Foundation.

About 30 years ago, the Yale psychology department implored Emory to join it. When I say implored, I am not exaggerating. Given the cast of tenured characters in our department, I did not expect the slot to be filled quickly, but I was prepared to filibuster if Emory was not given the most serious scrutiny. (Filibuster meant that instead of running off at the mouth for ten minutes, I would go five more.) As it turned out, I had to say little. It was one of the quickest decisions ever, and we instructed the chairman to roll out a very generous welcome mat.

We were crushed when he decided to stay at the University of Rochester where he had already been for 20 years. That did not surprise me, because I knew that Emory knew it would take him several years to establish the kind and depth of the relationships he had developed with the schools in Rochester, relationships crucial for his research program.

Emory had a galactic personal and scientific super-ego. As his graduate students will attest, their thesis went through many changes and drafts, less for the use of language than for the adequacy of logic and statistical analysis. He got the best out of his students (who were the best any place) who, despite having been through the Cowen wringer, came to respect, revere and thank him.

I wrote a book, Caring and Compassion in Clinical Practice. Three weeks later, Emory read it and sent me a 25-page critique of the book. I thanked him; my gene for humbleness went into overdrive. When Emory wrote a letter of recommendation for a student, even for someone he would characterize as one of the best of the best, the three-page, single spaced letter would contain what Emory considered an honest appraisal, not one of those letters that tell you that the candidate can walk on water.

There is no award for the psychologist who writes the most humorous letters to his colleagues and friends. Humorous and yet serious. If such an award did exist, I and countless others would nominate Emory. Getting one of those letters made your day, especially if you had been ruminating about the state of your life and the world.

There is a Yiddish word “mensch” – someone who reflects and represents what is best in human beings. Emory was a mensch as a person, psychologist, husband, father, and grandfather. In the decades that I knew him, I got the sense – I say the sense because I never verbalized it to him – that he underappreciated what he accomplished in his career and the impact he had on the lives of all who knew him. His death has impoverished my life; that is less important than how our field has been impoverished.

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