Bertram Cohler, psychologist and esteemed teacher, 1938-2012

Update: A memorial service for Bert Cohler will be held at 6 p.m. June 4 in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

Bertram Cohler, a UChicago psychologist and celebrated teacher who was an expert on family life and transitions, died May 9. Cohler, 73, was the William Rainey Harper Professor in the College.

Cohler’s primary appointment was in Comparative Human Development, with joint appointments held in Psychology, Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience, and the College. He was a mainstay of the Self, Culture and Society Core sequence, which he co-chaired for many years, and he also previously served as a Resident Head in the housing system.

He sustained an interest in clinical psychology throughout his career. He played a major role in the intellectual life of the Chicago psychoanalytic community and trained several generations of clinical PhD students.

“Bert Cohler was the embodiment of intellectual seriousness and love of assumption-questioning discourse that typifies the University of Chicago. I have long thought that the color of his blood must be maroon,” said Richard Shweder, the William Claude Reavis Distinguished Service Professor in Comparative Human Development.

He twice won the University’s top prize for College teaching, the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, first in 1975 and again in 1999.

In 2006 he won the Norman Maclean Faculty Award from the UChicago Alumni Association for outstanding contributions to teaching and student life on campus.

The essence of good teaching begins with respect for students, he said in an interview with the University of Chicago Chronicle in 1999. “I learn a tremendous amount from what the students say in class, and I want them to know I consider that important,” he said.

As a professor, he normally taught more classes than were required, as well as evening and summer courses through the University’s Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies.

“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,” said Michael Kaufman, a doctoral student in human development.

Cohler’s research interests included life-story and response to adversity and stigma. He taught a course, “Sexual Identity and the Life Course of Gay and Lesbian Lives,” which looked at the social contexts of gays and lesbians at various points in their lives, from childhood to old age.

The course was inspired by a book Cohler co-authored with Robert Galatzer-Levy, clinical professor of psychiatry at UChicago, The Course of Gay and Lesbian Lives: Social and Psychoanalytic Perspectives, published in 2000.

“Bert never separated his professional and personal life. His love and respect for people led him to use tools ranging from empirical research to deep examination of his own struggles to explore how individuals, in all sorts of contexts, ‘search after meaning’ across the course of life,” said Galatzer-Levy.

“Bert leaves behind not only a massive scholarly accomplishment but also an ideal of compassionate comprehension in the study of human lives,” he added.

Cohler was part of the University community much of his life. He attended the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School and University High School and continued his work at the College, where he received an AB in human development in 1961.

He received a PhD from Harvard University in 1967 from the department of social relations, where he deepened his interest in psychoanalysis as a means of understanding life course development.

“He was an erudite clinical psychologist trained in the interdisciplinary spirit of the Department of Social Relations at Harvard, where anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists were members of the same department,” said Shweder.

UChicago’s Department of Comparative Human Development carries on the tradition “in a large measure because of intellectuals such as Bert Cohler,” he added.

He came to Chicago in 1969 to become director of the Orthogenic School at the request of its legendary leader Bruno Bettelheim, who was retiring. In Chicago he resumed his psychoanalytic studies, completing psychoanalytic training at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, where he later became a prominent faculty member.

He joined the UChicago faculty in 1972 and was the principal investigator in a continuing study funded by the National Institute on Aging, concerning relations among young adults, their parents and grandparents in a Midwestern community.

He was co-editor of Mentally Ill Mothers and Their Children (1975).

His work led to a new understanding of the roles between parents and children brought on by aging, which can lead to an imbalance in mothers’ and daughters’ social ties, he pointed out.

“The older mother is increasingly preoccupied with the psychological consequences of her own aging at just the time her daughter is expressing the desire for increased contact and additional assistance in performing the roles of housewife and mother,” Cohler wrote in Mothers, Grandmothers and Daughters (1981), a book he co-authored.

He continued his publications on lifetime and transitions and was the author and editor of a number of important scholarly works, including the Essential Other, which he co-wrote with Galatzer-Levy (1993). He was a co-editor of the Handbook of Clinical Research and Practice, also published in 1993.

After his wife, Ann, died in 1989, Cohler entered a new phase in his life as a gay man. His research moved to include issues of homosexual identity, and he wrote a number of articles on the issues confronting young gay people as well as aging gays. 

Cohler put into practice what he studied and took leadership roles in fighting homophobia on campus and bringing psychological care to underserved populations. He held several leadership roles including the Presidency of the American Orthopsychiatric Association. Throughout his life he remained an active clinician, often working with troubled adolescents.

In his final years he also worked extensively studying the life narratives of Holocaust survivors.

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

A memorial service will take place in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on June 4.