Stanley Cohen was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1922. Both his mother and father were Russian-Jewish emigrants who came to America in the early 1900s. His father was a tailor and his mother a homemaker. Though of limited education themselves, Dr. Cohen wrote in his biography that his parents â€œinstilled in me the values of intellectual achievement and the use of whatever talents I possessed.â€ He was educated in the Brooklyn public school system, but earned a full scholarship to Brooklyn College, where he received his bachelor's degree in 1943 with a double-major in chemistry and zoology. After working as a bacteriologist at a milk processing plant to earn money, he received his M.A. in zoology from Oberlin College in 1945. He earned a Ph.D. from the department of biochemistry at the University of Michigan in 1948.
After a short stint at Colorado, he went to Washington University in 1952 to work with Martin Kamen in the Department of Radiology at Washington University as a postdoctoral fellow of the American Cancer Society. He learned isotope methodology while studying carbon dioxide fixation in frog eggs and embryos. In 1953 He became associated with the Department of Zoology under the leadership of Viktor Hamburger at Washington University and joined Rita Levi-Montalcini to isolate a Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) that Dr. Levi-Montalcini had discovered in certain mouse tumors and to become educated in the field of experimental embryology. Cohen isolated nerve growth factor and then went on to discover epidermal growth factor. He continued his research on cellular growth factors after moving to Vanderbilt University in 1959 as an Assistant Professor in the Biochemistry Department, exploring the chemistry and biology of epidermal growth factor (EGF). His research on cellular growth factors has proven fundamental to understanding the development of cancer and designing anti-cancer drugs. In 1986 he and Dr. Levi-Montalcini were awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology. Cohen also received the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University. Dr. Cohen remains active in Vanderbilt School of Medicine activities.