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Renowned U Of C Professor, Psychologist Bert Cohler Dies

Bertram Cohler

University of Chicago social science professor and psychologist Bertram Cohler has died. (Credit: University of Chicago)

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CHICAGO (CBS) — Renowned University of Chicago psychology professor Bertram Cohler has died. He was 73.

Cohler passed away on Wednesday of last week, the U of C said in a news release.

Cohler served many years as the William Rainey Harper professor in the Social Sciences collegiate division, and held several other appointments. He was known particularly as an expert on family life and transitions, sexuality and society, and the study of how people cope with adversity.

Cohler was associated with the U of C in some capacity since his childhood. As a youngster, Cohler attended the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School, a residential program at the U of C for emotionally disturbed children.

He went on to attend college at the U of C – receiving a bachelor’s in human development in 1961. He received a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1967, and returned to Chicago two years later, when retiring Orthogenic School director Bruno Bettelheim called upon Cohler to take over at the school.

Cohler regarded Bettelheim – a well-known Freudian psychoanalyst and early researcher on childhood autism – as his personal mentor.

“Bruno was very caring, and I owe a lot to him in my own teaching,” Cohler said in a 1999 article in the U of C Chronicle public relations newsletter. “Bruno had a tremendous capacity for empathy and that is something I try to emulate. It is an ability that helps me respect the students.”

Bettelheim has been the subject of controversy since his death in 1990, after some students said he had a propensity for exploding in anger and beating children at the school. In a 2001 interview with the Chicago Weekly News student newspaper, Cohler admitted that Bettelheim hit the children at the school, but said it was not “out of malice.”

Cohler also told the Chicago Weekly News that among the first reforms he instituted as director of the school was to end corporal punishment, because “if we can’t have human relationships, we’re sunk.”

Meanwhile, Cohler joined the U of C faculty in 1972, and became renowned for the college courses he taught. The university says he usually taught more classes than were required per term, and also taught evening and summer classes.

He twice won the U of C’s top prize for college teaching – the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching – in 1975 and 1999.

“Bert’s love of students and teaching combined with an almost fanatical zeal to do his part in ensuring that the University fulfilled its responsibility to teach. He often said he was merely carrying out the ideals of his beloved University of Chicago, but it is clear, in the end, that Bert himself was a beacon of these ideals,” Michael Kaufman, a doctoral student in human development, said in a U of C news release.

Cohler also won accolades as an expert on gay identity. He himself came out as a gay man after his wife, Ann, died in 1989.

The U of C points out that Cohler wrote several articles on issues confronting young LGBT people, as well as aging gays and lesbians. He also took leadership roles in fighting homophobia on the U of C campus.

He was also the co-editor of “Mentally Ill Mothers and Their Children” in 1975.

Most recently, Cohler had been researching the life narratives of Holocaust survivors.

Cohler is survived by his partner, Bill Hensley; his sons, Jonathan and James; his grandson, Logan; and his granddaughters, Emma and Kate.

A memorial service for Cohler is set for June 4 at Rockefeller Chapel, at 5850 S. Woodlawn Ave. on the U of C campus.