Elizabeth D. A. Magnus Cohen, M.D., was Louisiana's first woman physician. She cared for the people of the French Quarter of New Orleans for thirty years, from 1857 to 1887when yellow fever and smallpox regularly ravaged the population.
Elizabeth D. A. Magnus Cohen was born in New York City to David and Phoebe Cohen on February 22, 1820. She grew up in New York, later marrying Dr. Aaron Cohen, with whom she had five children, though only one lived to adulthood. The death of her youngest son from measles inspired her to become a doctor. In 1854, when her husband left New York to study surgery in New Orleans, she enrolled at the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, now named the Medical College of Pennsylvania.
There is some confusion over her graduation from the college, but nonetheless, Dr. Elizabeth Cohen began her practice in New Orleans in 1857. The City Directory listed her as a midwife in 1867 and 1868, and in 1869, as a "doctress." Not until 1876 did she appear as "Mrs. Elizabeth Cohen, physician." Dr. Cohen later assured her interviewers that neither she nor other women physicians of her day experienced the same discrimination from their male colleagues as others would later experience. While she was still in medical school, a New Orleans Bee editorial on July 3, 1853, had labeled the idea of a female physician treating male patients as incongruous and improper. In 1898, an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association blamed women physicians for the declines in salaries and prestige of the medical profession. Eventually, medical schools began refusing to admit women.
Dr. Cohen arrived in New Orleans just a few years after the summer of 1853, when eight thousand people had died of epidemic outbreaks in New Orleans alone. From 1865 to 1873 she and her colleagues faced recurring rounds of smallpox, typhoid, and yellow fever, and in one year more than three thousand died there.
Dr. Cohen often said that during her practice she never had an uninterrupted night, and she could always count on being called out once or twice before each dawn. She was considered a leading New Orleans surgeon, and claimed never to have lost a patient over her thirty-year career. Whether or not this bold claim is entirely true, other doctors referred to her as a "lucky hand" in difficult cases.
Dr. Cohen retired from active practice in 1887 and decided to pay board to live at the famed Touro Infirmary, which became the Julius Weiss Home for the Aged. Touro was founded by Judah Touro to treat slaves and free blacks, as well as whites. It was the first private hospital in New Orleans, and one of the first in the South. When Dr. Cohen moved in at age 68, she volunteered to run the hospital's sewing and linen room. She died there on May 28, 1921 at age 101.