To welcome new and old students to St George’s, our Archive team will be exploring the stories of some of our alumni. Today’s post comes from Archivist Juulia Ahvensalmi.
Newspaper headlines in 1960 made much of the death of Kathryn Hamill Cohen. Portrayed looking elegant and glamorous, newspaper reports could hardly contain themselves – the story, after all, seemed to have it all: suicide of a Chelsea doctor, psychoanalyst and a Broadway dancer. She was also a lover of Patricia Highsmith. But who was she, and what was her connection to St George’s?
Kathryn Hamill Cohen was one of the first female students to enter the Medical School when St George’s again admitted women in 1945, for the first time since the First World War. There had been considerable resistance to the idea of female students, and it was only in 1915 that first female students were admitted to St George’s. Even then, their time was limited, and after the war the doors of the medical school were again closed to women.
The minutes of the Medical School show that co-education (that is, women and men studying together) was a hotly debated subject between the wars, and St George’s also received petitions and requests to allow women to continue studying alongside men. Progress was, however, slow, and so it was not until 1944 that a report by the London universities found that, in fact, patients (astonishingly) did not mind being examined by female students, and since opposition to co-education appeared to be diminishing and many universities were already admitting women, the remaining argument against allowing female students appeared to be that ‘the Schools for men are loath to lose their traditions which have been built up by generations of male students’.
And so Cohen was admitted to study at St George’s alongside with four other women in 1945: Ruth Clare Cornford (Chapman), Patience Proby, Adrien Patricia Dunlop and Zaïda Megrah (Hall / Ramsbotham). Being one of so few women must have been hard – even the student records had everything printed as ‘Mr’ as default, as Cohen’s attendance card for anaesthetics shows below. Furthermore, while the other women were in their early 20s, Cohen was 40 when she began her studies at St George’s. Her outlook on life and on her studies must have differed considerably from that of her fellow students.
Prior to her medical studies, she had led an eventful life. Born in New York in 1905, she had worked as a dancer at Broadway with the Ziegfeld Follies, who were hugely successful, glitzy revue performers with elaborate choreographies.
In 1930 she moved to the UK; her arrival is recorded on a passenger list from New York to Plymouth on 30 Dec 1930. She was 25 years old, and her occupation on this list is given as actress. Later that year she married Dennis Cohen, a publisher at the Cresset Press, who may have been an MI6 officer, and who was also involved in organising Kindertransport from Germany during the war. They eventually moved to Chelsea, where they had commissioned an avant-garde house still known as the ‘Cohen house’.
At some point prior to 1945 Cohen worked as a secretary to Nye Bevan, who in 1948 went on to establish the NHS: perhaps this work prompted her to consider medical studies, rather than politics. Between 1941 and 1944 she was a student at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she studied anatomy, physiology and biochemistry. She enrolled as a student at St George’s in September 1945, a week after the official end of Second World War 2 September 1945.
After graduating from the medical school in 1948, her student records show that she worked as house officer and registrar at St George’s Hospital for several years (and even in her student photograph she looks glamorous). Later she was employed as psychoanalyst at the hospital and appears to have practiced psychiatry from her home office. She was also interested in genetics, and published on the use of hypnosis in treating skin diseases. Although psychoanalysis may now have a dubitable reputation, it was a respected field of study at the time.
During this time she met the author Patricia Highsmith at a party in New York. The two had an affair in 1949: “Kathryn was beautiful, intelligent, melancholy, monied, and married: a combination Pat always found irresistible”. Highsmith asked Cohen to accompany her on a trip to Italy, although the affair does not appear to have continued after that.
It was this connection to Highsmith that made Cohen famous, as she was a partial inspiration for Highsmith’s novel ‘The Price of Salt’ (later republished as ‘Carol’ and made into a film in 2015), a departure from her usual psychological thrillers in that it was a romance – and a lesbian romance at that, which in the 1950s was somewhat scandalous. Dennis Cohen’s publishing house (for which Cohen worked for as a co-director) published several of Highsmith’s books, including ‘Strangers on a Train’, which Alfred Hitchcock made into a film.
Her life, however, had a tragic end: in 1960 Cohen took her own life by taking an overdose of barbiturates. In a further (if morbid) connection to St George’s, her post mortem was performed by Donald Teare, pathologist at St George’s, and also a former student of St George’s.