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Alan Cohen

by Harry Marsh and Tim Cook.

Alan Cohen 1999Alan Cohen was born in Hackney, East London, in January 1932. His parents were the children of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. His family suffered considerable hardship in the 1930’s, with periods of unemployment. He lived in north London prior to the second world war and he was a child evacuee to several different locations, including Cambridge. This experience affected him greatly. He returned to London in 1946. He attended the London School of Economics (LSE) and, following National Service based in Germany, he worked as a houseparent in residential child care; and then for Family Service Units in Islington from 1957 to 1962. Apparently he was sure from an early age that he wanted a career in social work.

After gaining the Certificate in Psychiatric Social Work at LSE in 1963, he worked for Nottinghamshire County Council’s Mental Health Services and from there moved to Nottingham Regional College of Technology (now Nottingham Trent University) as a tutor on the Social Work course. In 1974 he was appointed as a lecturer on the newly established Social Work course at Lancaster University. In 1983 Alan moved to part-time hours at the University in order to return to fieldwork. He served as a resettlement social worker at the Royal Albert Hospital in Lancaster –a long-stay learning disability institution – and in 1985 he took early retirement from the University.

Alan returned to full-time social work in the learning disabilities division of Lancashire Social Services Department and set up an adult placement scheme before retiring in 1996. Meanwhile he had researched and written his book, The Revolution in Family Casework: the Story of Pacifist Service Units and Family Service Units, 1940 to 1959, published in 1998.

He also researched the lives and work of many of the people involved in the early development of social work in the UK, assisted by his sabbatical in 1979-80 from Lancaster University, and conducted taped interviews with several in 1980 –81. It is the edited and annotated transcripts of those tapes that are now published under the title The Cohen Interviews: conversations with 26 social work pioneers.

The Editors can recall meeting Alan personally only very occasionally – once he came to the Family Service Units national office in the mid-1980’s to discuss his proposed research on the PSU and FSU pioneers. And so we knew he had a penchant for pioneers and that face to face interviews were his preferred method. He acknowledged the influence of Hentoff and Shapiro’s 1955 treatment of the jazz pioneers in Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: the story of jazz by the men who made it. If we substitute ‘Social Work’ for jazz and ‘Mostly Women’ for men,then we are close to Alan Cohen’s grasp of the importance of social work history and the courageous characters who laid many of the foundations. Alan’s partner Maggie once affectionately remarked that he was better at starting things than finishing. We, as co-editors, are very pleased to have been invited to do a bit of finishing.