Arthur Cohen
by J. O’Keefe, F. Rich, and J.C. Hower

Arthur David Cohen, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of South Carolina and long-time The Society for Organic Petrography member, died peacefully in his sleep in May 2020. He leaves an extensive legacy of insights into sub-tropical swamp and salt-marsh plant communities, peat development, geochemistry, and coalification. Peat paleoecological studies using microtome section petrography and palynology were continuous themes through Art’s more than 50 years of academic contributions. Art was born in Wilmington, DE on 26 February 1942. He received his B.S. in geology, with a minor in mathematics, from the University of Delaware in June of 1964.

It was during his B.S. that he was introduced to palynology by Dr. Edward A. Stanley, a recent graduate of the Coal Lab at The Pennsylvania State University, who supervised Art’s BS thesis, “A Palynological Investigation of Post-Glacial Sea-Level Changes at Canary Creek Salt Marsh, Lewes, Delaware.” Art began his graduate career following in Stanley’s footsteps, joining William Spackman’s Coal Lab at Penn State in 1964, along with University of Delaware classmate John C. “Jack” Crelling. Both would go on to illustrious careers in energy geosciences. While Alfred Traverse honed Art’s palynological skills, Spackman introduced him to organic petrography and paleobotany, as well as the beauty and wonder of the Everglades and Okefenokee swamps, and the joy of teaching, both in the classroom and the field. These were passions that would never leave him.

The fall before completing his doctorate (December, 1968), Art began his first academic posting, as an Assistant Professor of geology at University of Georgia, working with his old mentor, E.A. Stanley. This ended up being a one-year appointment, as he was recruited to establish the Coal Laboratory at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale beginning in Fall 1969, a position he held as Assistant Professor until his resignation in summer 1974, when he took a one-year appointment at the US Geological Survey’s Coal Research Branch in Reston, VA.  In 1975 he took a position at the University of South Carolina, as Professor and Director of the Organic Sediments Research Center, a position he held until 1982. From 1982-1988 Art served as a staff scientist in the Wetlands Survey at Lost Alamos National Laboratory/University of California Berkeley while also maintaining appointments as an adjunct professor at both the University of South Carolina (USC) and the University of New Mexico. In 1988, he returned to the University of South Carolina as Professor of Geological Science & Marine Science, where he remained until his retirement in 2011. He relocated to Palm Harbor, Florida, following his retirement and opened Wetland Survey, LLC in Palm Harbor, Florida, which was active from 2014-2019. In 2015, Art was elected Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Geology at USC.

Over the course of his lengthy career, Art wrote or edited 12 books and published over 140 papers, as well as many abstracts and technical reports. Art was a leader in the study of peat petrography and pioneered the use of microtome thin-sections for this work, which sped up section production and increased tissue preservation. Throughout his early career, Art used both organic petrography and palynology to elucidate peat depositional systems, especially of the marine-influenced peats of the Everglades and Okefenokee. In later years, the focus shifted to geochemical studies supporting peat utilization on one hand, and palynology-driven paleoecological and archaeological studies on the other.

Throughout, he was known as a gifted field trip leader, and was very well known for the excursions into the Everglades and Okefenokee he produced for AASP, GSA, industry, and many universities. Impeccably designed, supported by research, maps, hand-samples, and microscope slides, these trips sparked many others’ scientific careers and produced a great deal of camaraderie among the invariably wet and muddy participants. Whether boating, coring, or examining samples collected in the evenings, Art’s depth of knowledge and intuitive integration of organic matter production, both in terms of standing biomass and palynology, taphonomy, geochemistry, depositional environments, and diagenesis made these trips the scientific gold standard.  It is also worthy of note that Art always dressed in respectable field gear; he could have gone shopping in his field attire.  He never hesitated, though, to get “down and dirty” when it came to slogging through a swamp, up to his knees in water and peat.  He clearly loved what he was doing.

A prolific researcher and presenter, Art was a fixture at scientific meetings, especially annual and regional meetings of the Geological Society of America, The Society for Organic Petrology, and AASP – the Palynological Society. Beyond his insightful presentations, Art was well known for quietly entering presentation halls, asking one or two insightful questions, then fading into the background. He was never one to call attention to himself but went out of his way to support students and help everyone around him grow as scientists.

Art supervised or co-supervised 10 PhD students and 22 masters students on wide-ranging topics from peat petrography, palynology and paleoecology, geomorphology and tectonics of wetlands, elemental and mineral distributions in peats, and utilization of peats as sorbents. Many of his students went on to become well known scientists and public servants, including leaders in organic petrography (Jim Staub - MS, 1977), palynology and organic petrography (Fred Rich - PhD, 1979), and National Park Scientists (David Skelley - PhD, 2007).  For excellence in undergraduate education in the classroom and field, Art received the Michael J. Mungo Undergraduate Teaching Award from the University of South Carolina in 2003.

A consummate public servant, especially early in his career, Art served as chairman of the Coal Division (now Energy Geology Division) of the Geological Society of America in 1976 and won the outstanding paper award in 1987. He became a fellow of the Geological Society of America in 1982. Beginning with his service in 1976, Art completed many volunteer tasks with the Coal Division, including internal committee service, membership on the joint technical program committee for annual meetings, and as a session chairman. For 20 years of sustained service, he received the Distinguished Service Award from the Coal Division in 1996.  Art served on the ASTM Classification of Peat Committee, which he chaired in 1979, as well as contributing to the development of other ASTM standards relating to coal and peat, for which he won Standards Development Awards in 1992, 1996, and 1997. Art served as president of The Society of Organic Petrology in 1989-1990. He received the Gilbert Cady Award from the Coal Geology Division (now Energy Geology Division) of the Geological Society of America in 2005 for his immense contributions to peat and coal petrography, palynology, and geochemistry, as well as energy education.

Art left us in much the same way he lived among us: quietly, with no fanfare, but he will not be forgotten: his scientific legacy will stand the test of time.