This is a story about two remarkable Michigan men: one is well known to Bar Journal readers; the other isn’t but should be.
Norman Shumway had designs on becoming a lawyer. Avern Cohn planned to be a doctor. Cohn went to Stanford University for premedical training and attended medical school for a short period.1 Shumway became a surgeon at the Stanford University School of Medicine, where he worked from 1958 until his retirement in 1993.2 Cohn, of course, was a practicing attorney for three decades and a federal judge for 40 years.3
Some might say Cohn had the personality of a surgeon. Shumway, meanwhile, was kind and patient, with a great sense of humor — characteristics not common among surgeons.
Before his passing last year, we discovered the Shumway-Cohn connection and shared with Cohn a draft article about Shumway. Cohn said he knew Shumway.4
Here, we tell the story of Shumway and Cohn who met briefly as young men, switched careers, and went on to lead remarkable lives.
Shumway was born in 1923 in Kalamazoo, an only child who moved to Jackson at an early age. His parents ran a business called the Home Dairy consisting of a diner up front and a dairy in the rear. At Jackson High School, he was a member of the debate team that won a state championship and graduated as class valedictorian. His yearbook photo was accompanied by the aphorism: “Norman Shumway Jr. — a man of few words but great meaning.”5
Cohn was born in 1924 in Detroit, the oldest of two children. His father was a prominent bankruptcy lawyer, and his mother was a homemaker. Cohn was raised in the Russell Woods neighborhood on Detroit’s west side, an upper-middle class area he described as Detroit’s “golden ghetto,” a tight-knit Jewish community — Cohn later recalled that he “had almost no non-Jewish friends or associations” growing up — and much of his early life can be traced in the Detroit Jewish News and Detroit Jewish Chronicle.6
Like Shumway, Cohn was an excellent student. A voracious reader, he was particularly interested in history and developed an early fascination with politics. At age 17, he graduated with honors from Detroit Central High School in January 1942 and immediately set off to college.7
MICHIGAN MEN AND A WAR
Coincidentally, both Shumway and Cohn enrolled at the University of Michigan as pre-law students just a few months apart. Shumway joined the Phi Delta Gamma fraternity, while Cohn joined Sigma Alpha Mu. From an early age, Cohn knew he would follow in his father’s footsteps by attending the University of Michigan — “I didn’t know there was any other university in the United States.”8
The Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry in World War II altered their plans.
Shumway enlisted hoping to become a fighter pilot but learned that sinus problems rendered him ineligible to do so.9 Cohn would have enlisted but his eyesight was so poor that he decided to wait for his draft notice. Each week, he watched another of his fraternity brothers receive his draft notice, put his civilian clothes up for sale, and head off for induction. When Cohn’s notice arrived in 1943, he reported for basic infantry training at Fort Custer near Battle Creek.10
CROSSING PATHS IN TEXAS
Both Shumway and Cohn had performed well on the Army’s General Classification Test after completing basic training, so they were selected for the Army Specialized Training Program11 and sent to John Tarleton Agricultural College (now Tarleton State University) in Stephenville, Texas, about 110 miles southwest of Dallas.12 Cohn told the authors that he estimated about 200,000 men nationwide participated in the program. In addition to the pre-engineering program at Tarleton, there were programs in premedicine, medicine, and dentistry.13
Although they were not roommates, Shumway and Cohn lived in the same dormitory. After discovering they were both from Michigan and had briefly attended the University of Michigan, they became friends.14
Pre-engineering training was scheduled to last three quarters but was suspended while both men were in their third quarters; the Army suspected it would need reserves to replace expected casualties in Europe. They were sent to a reassignment center, Camp Maxey, near Paris, Texas. There, they both took a medical aptitude test, which resulted in Cohn being sent to Stanford and Shumway going to Baylor University for premed training.15
Incidentally, the test’s last question asked enlistees if they would be more interested in medicine or dentistry. Shumway decided the Army was going to need more doctors than dentists, so he marked “medicine.” His choice turned out to be prophetic; the dental program was later discontinued. Those officers were sent back to the infantry.16
After about nine months together in Texas, the two men never spoke again. But they went on to lead interesting and productive lives, each making significant contributions to their professions, one in medicine and the other in law.17
DR. SHUMWAY … AND DR. COHN?
After completing his premed studies at Baylor, Shumway took a job as an orderly at a hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, while waiting for a military slot to open in medical school. In 1945, one came available at Vanderbilt University.18
Cohn, meanwhile, finished his premed training at Stanford and also had to wait for an opening at a medical school. He worked for eight months as a ward boy fetching bedpans at a VA hospital near Chicago until landing a spot at Loyola Medical School in 1945. Unlike Shumway, Cohn decided he was better suited for law than medicine and dropped out of Loyola in the spring of 1946, shortly after being honorably discharged from the service. Though he hadn’t completed his undergraduate degree, Cohn entered the University of Michigan Law School that fall and graduated in 1949, after which he immediately joined his father’s law practice.19
SHUMWAY GOES WEST
After medical school, Shumway began his surgical residency at the University of Minnesota in 1949. There, he met his future wife, Mary Lou Stuurmans, a public health nurse. Shumway’s residency was interrupted by a two-year stint in the Air Force during the Korean Conflict, but he returned to Minnesota in 1953 to complete his residency and a research thesis on the effects of cooling on the electrical activity of the heart, for which he earned a PhD in 1956. At Minnesota, Shumway trained under Dr. Owen Wangensteen, chairman of the school’s surgery department, and Dr. Walton Lillehei, the chief of thoracic surgery.20
On the hunt for a job, Shumway unsuccessfully interviewed for a position at the University of California at San Francisco with Dr. Leon Goldman, the father of future U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein – he said he knew he wouldn’t be hired when Goldman fell asleep during the interview. Shumway found a home at Stanford University in 1957 where he was soon joined by another heart surgeon with an interest in transplants, Dr. Richard Lower. In 1959, the duo successfully removed a dog’s heart and sewed it back in; later that year, they performed the first successful experimental transplant on a dog, proving a transplanted heart could function properly.21
COHN COMES HOME
Irwin Cohn’s Detroit law firm was a general civil practice firm with an emphasis on bankruptcy, real estate, business transactions, and labor relations; clients included Federated Department Stores, Wrigley’s Supermarkets, Sinai Hospital, and the Michigan Hospital Association. Avern Cohn did debt collection, evictions, and labor arbitrations; examined abstracts; and took criminal assignments. In 1962, Cohn combined with Honigman, Miller & Schwartz to form Honigman, Miller, Schwartz & Cohn.22
In 1954, Cohn met his future wife, Joyce Ann Hochman. The couple married in December of that year. The Cohns were politically active. Avern Cohn worked with Volunteers for Stevenson as a precinct delegate and was treasurer for Citizens for Kennedy-Johnson in Michigan. In the 1960s, he managed campaigns of Michigan Supreme Court candidates including Paul Adams and Otis Smith and was the treasurer for the U.S. Senate campaigns of G. Mennen Williams and Frank Kelley (and, much later, he did the same for his cousin, Carl Levin.)23
In spite of his activism, Cohn appeared on a ballot only once – in 1961, he mounted a losing bid for a spot as a delegate to the Michigan Constitutional Convention. That same year, he had a final brush with elected office after Michigan’s attorney general was named to the state Supreme Court; the choice of a successor came down to Cohn and Frank Kelley. Kelley was selected and stayed in office until 1999.24
Many years later, Kelley told Cohn, “Avern, you got the job you should have had, and I got the one I should have — you just had to wait longer.”25
THE WORLD’S GREATEST HEART TRANSPLANT DOCTOR
Shumway became Stanford’s chief of cardiothoracic surgery in 1965, a position he held until his retirement in 1993. In 1967, following a decade of research, he announced that he was ready to perform the first human heart transplant. The next day, a South African newspaper announced that a team led by Dr. Christiaan Barnard was on standby to perform a heart transplant.26
Barnard, who had trained with Shumway at the University of Minnesota, performed the world’s first human heart transplant on Dec. 3, 1967. Shumway performed his first successful human heart transplant (the world’s fourth) on Jan. 8, 1968, five weeks after Barnard. Over the next year, approximately 100 transplants were performed by different doctors, but the results were poor mainly due to host rejection. The resulting public outcry led to a 10-year moratorium on heart transplants — except at Stanford.27
By some accounts, the relationship between Barnard and Shumway was strained due to the competition between the two men. But one of Shumway’s daughters, Sara J. Shumway, a cardiothoracic surgery professor at the University of Minnesota, disagrees. Barnard’s groundbreaking surgery excited her father because it helped surmount legal barriers that blocked surgeons at Stanford from recovering donor hearts.28
“Once Barnard was able to do a heart transplant,” Sara Shumway said, “it paved the way for other transplants to occur.”29
While Barnard was enjoying a playboy lifestyle and carousing with Hollywood stars like Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida, Shumway worked to improve the care with which donors and recipients were selected, made efforts to increase the donor pool, brought about improvements in organ preservation and heart biopsies, and followed developments with respect to antirejection drugs. When the rest of the world resumed transplants, Shumway ascribed the turnaround to his “radical perseverance.”30
Soon, Shumway led the world in the number of heart transplants and, more importantly, in the number of successful transplants. Of the approximately 800 heart transplants he performed or oversaw, more than 80% of his patients lived for at least five years31 and the longest lived 20 years.32
Shumway also developed and performed the first heart-lung transplant. Through research, he discovered that it was impossible to transplant lungs without also transplanting the heart. Along with his colleague, Dr. Bruce Reitz, he performed the first human heart-lung procedure in 1981. The patient, Mary Gohlke, lived for five years.33
In 1973, Shumway performed heart surgery on future Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. In his autobiography, Stevens wrote that Shumway performed an “amazingly successful operation,” so much so that he was healthy enough to be nominated to the Supreme Court by President Gerald Ford and confirmed in 1975. Stevens called Shumway a “true pioneer.”34
The transplant revolution Shumway sparked extended beyond medicine by forcing reconsideration of the traditional definition of death as the moment the heart stops beating. Instead, an organ donor can now be considered dead as soon as electrical activity in the brain ceases, allowing transportation of a living heart or other organs.35
COHN STIRS THE POT
During his 30 years in private practice, Cohn often used his skills to further the public interest. When the Automobile Club of Michigan moved its headquarters and 1,200 jobs from downtown Detroit to Dearborn in 1974, there was an uproar amid claims of discrimination. Cohn took a more subtle approach. In Dozier v. Automobile Club of Michigan, as attorney for the plaintiffs, Cohn challenged the legality of the club’s bylaws which provided for nomination and election of its directors (in a self-perpetuating fashion) by the directors themselves rather than by the membership. Cohn succeeded in persuading the state Court of Appeals to reverse an adverse decision by a Wayne County judge.36 Though the club amended its bylaws in response to the suit, Cohn was unsuccessful in his attempts to persuade the club to add a Black board member.37
Later, Cohn questioned the applicability of Michigan’s Open Meetings Act to Michigan Supreme Court meetings on administrative matters. His letter to the Court asking when they were next scheduled to meet prompted the Court’s opinion, In re the Sunshine Law, that declared unconstitutional the portion of the act applicable “to a court while exercising rule-making authority and while deliberating or deciding upon the issuance of administrative orders.”38
In 1978, Cohn chaired a State Bar of Michigan special committee that authored the controversial “Report of the Special State Bar Committee on Court Congestion.” The committee recommended that the Michigan Supreme Court become more transparent in its own operations; fulfill the promise of “one court of justice” laid out in the state constitution; and require greater uniformity and exercise more supervisory authority over the lower courts in Michigan. The recommendations were quite revolutionary at the time and caused a firestorm.39
THE WORLD’S GREATEST FIRST ASSISTANT
Without question, Shumway’s renown in the field of medicine is remarkable. A frequent lecturer, he also wrote extensively — there are 447 papers listed under his name in PubMed.40 Of the 76 residents Shumway trained at Stanford, 22 became chiefs or chairs of significant divisions or departments in the U.S. and throughout the world. And in what is now standard practice, Shumway had his trainees alternate between cardiac and general surgery. For example, one performed a heart transplant before he had even performed a hernia operation.41
Shumway also differed from many of his peers who gave residents little opportunity to operate on patients; instead, he assisted while the trainee did the surgery. This, perhaps, was his most significant legacy and explained his personal surgical philosophy: “The most difficult thing about surgery — even open-heart surgery — is getting a chance to do it. It certainly doesn’t matter as much who does the operation, as how it is done.”42
If a young surgeon erred, Shumway assumed command. “We used to joke that he was the world’s greatest first assistant,” said Dr. William R. Brody, a Shumway trainee who served as president of Johns Hopkins University and the Salk Institute. “Dr. Shumway had the ability to get people to work harder for him than anyone I have ever seen and yet never did it with a directive or unkind word. He always used humor and delegated responsibility.”43
COHN THE JUDGE
It is no wonder Cohn’s name came to the forefront when there were vacancies on the federal bench in the late 1970s. For 30 years, he had prepared himself for such an appointment. He was a senior partner in an established, well-regarded law firm; active in the general, political, and religious communities; and supported by both organized labor and the Black community. To top it off, Democratic President Jimmy Carter was in the White House and the Democrats held congressional majorities. His investiture to the federal court in 1979 was a highly attended event.44
During his tenure on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan from 1979-2019, Cohn oversaw many significant cases including litigation resulting from the firing of striking air traffic controllers by President Ronald Reagan in 1980, the windup of the Detroit school desegregation case, and a protracted patent infringement case brought against auto manufacturers by Robert Kearns, inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper.45 In Doe v. University of Michigan,46 a 1989 case, Cohn struck down a hate speech code instituted at his alma mater, saying it was vague, too broad, and violated the First Amendment. Six years later, he heard U.S. v. Jake Baker, one of the first cases involving free speech and the internet. Cohn dismissed charges against a student who posted stories about raping, torturing, and murdering women, ruling there was no evidence the author intended to commit a crime and that he had a free-speech right to his fantasies.47 The decision was bitterly denounced in some circles, but it was never reversed.
Anyone who met Cohn soon learned that he had a huge presence, an encyclopedic mind, and sometimes displayed a volatile temper. He could be, at any moment, brilliant and caring or cranky and even irascible. Many a lawyer who appeared in his courtroom, especially those who were ill-prepared, got, in the words of Cohn’s close friend Eugene Driker, a high-decibel “oral spanking.”48
Still, many found that Cohn was a judge with a heart. Nada Nadim Prouty was a native of Lebanon and a naturalized U.S. citizen who had served in both the FBI and CIA. The government accused her of crimes including naturalization fraud and conspiracy to defraud the United States. Nicknamed “Jihad Jane” by the media, she was worried upon learning her case had been assigned to Cohn, a pillar of Detroit’s Jewish community. After studying the case, the judge tore into the government and the media and praised Prouty for “rendering extraordinary service to the United States.” In the end, she was exonerated.
“I was ecstatic that the judge had seen through the smoke to the real facts in my case,” Prouty said. “Judge Cohn was very fair. He stood apart from the rest. He had a heart.”49
SHUMWAY’S HUMAN TOUCH
Shumway was well known for how his humor and quick wit could relax and entertain an entire operating team. Colleagues referred to his “Shumwayisms” such as, “All you need to know to perform open heart surgery is that water runs downhill and seeks its own level” and “All bleeding stops sometimes.”50
Joanne Meagher came to Stanford as a newly graduated nurse in 1966 where, after three days of orientation, she was assigned to nights as the sole pediatrics RN. A little after midnight on her first night, Shumway, smiling and clad in rumpled scrubs, asked Meagher who she was, what was going on, and how the kids were.
“I … tearfully replied that there were these four kids who had heart surgery and were on monitors that I had no idea how to work and was afraid that something bad would happen,” she said. “He smiled, escorted me to the room, gave me a 20-minute crash course on the basics with lots of laughs thrown in, walked out on the patio, brought in a lawn chair, and stayed there with me until morning.
“That is the Norman Shumway I knew for the next several decades[.] Kind, professional, caring, funny, dedicated, and a real gentleman.”51
COHN’S PUBLIC SERVICE
Cohn, meanwhile, frequently volunteered his time to a variety of causes. He served on several State Bar committees including the Character and Fitness Committee, the Committee on Legal Aid, and the Committee on Judicial Selection and Tenure. He was part of the Michigan Social Welfare Commission, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, and the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, and he was active in several Jewish organizations including the Jewish Community Council. And he sent scores of thought-provoking letters to editors of legal journals and newspapers over the years.52
SHUMWAY'S AND COHN’S CONTRIBUTIONS
Dr. Norman Shumway died at his Palo Alto, California, home on Feb. 10, 2006, from complications from cancer, one day after his 83rd birthday. Judge Avern Cohn died at age 97, at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak on Feb. 4, 2022, after a brief illness.53
The story of Norman Shumway and Avern Cohn is a story about America and what makes this country great. These men born 18 months and 140 miles apart “thought about the other fella”54 and put their considerable intellectual gifts to work to better the world in which we live.