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Jean Wright Cohn Endowment Fund in the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology (UMMZ)

Birding in the 1950s, before Jean began her graduate work.

The Jean Wright Cohn Endowment Fund in the Museum of Zoology has been established through a very generous donation from the Jean W. Cohn Living Trust to support the activities of the Museum’s Bird Division. The gift will be a meaningful legacy to Dr. Cohn, an avid ornithologist who obtained her doctorate through the UMMZ program, and will carry her commitment to avian biodiversity forward, to future generations of UMMZ faculty, researchers and students. Although the UMMZ community is naturally saddened by the loss of our friend and colleague, we are very grateful that she remembered us in such a meaningful and impactful way.

About Jean Wright Cohn

Dr. Cohn’s Ph.D. dissertation is entitled: Cohn,  JMW. 1968. The convergent flight mechanism of swifts (Apodi) and hummingbirds (Trochili) (Aves). Doctoral dissertation, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan. Her advisor was UMMZ Bird Curator, Professor Bob Storer

Cohn’s dissertation, now available online (, is a detailed comparative anatomical and functional comparison of the fight mechanism of swifts and hummingbirds. Her dissertation has been read and cited by anatomists, paleontologists and systematists and has 17 garnered citations (on Google Scholar), most recently in:

  • Livezey, B. C. & Zusi, R. L. 2007. Higher-order phylogeny of modern birds (Theropoda, Aves: Neornithes) based on comparative anatomy. II. Analysis and discussion. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 149: 1-95.
  • Livezey, B. C. & Zusi, R. L. 2006. Higher-order phylogeny of modern birds (Theropoda, Aves: Neornithes) based on comparative anatomy. I. Methods and characters. Bulletin of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History 37: 1-556. (with a CD of the character matrix)
  • Mayr, G. 2003. Phylogeny of early Tertiary swifts and hummingbirds. Auk 120:145-151.
  • Bleiweiss, R. 2002. Patagial complex evolution in hummingbirds and swifts (Apodiformes: a molecular perspective. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 77:211-219.

Cohn’s dissertation is cited in additional scholarly articles not on Google Scholar, some written by ornithologists who knew her as a graduate student, including:

  • Sibley, C. G. & J. E. Ahlquist.  1990.  Phylogeny and Classification of Birds, A Study in Molecular Evolution.  Yale Univ. Press.
  • Zusi, R. L. & G. D. Bentz.  1982.  Variation of a muscle in hummingbirds and swifts and its systematic implications.  Proc. Biol. Soc. Wash. 95:412-420.
  • Collins, C. T.  1978.  The natal pteryosis of hummingbirds.  Bull. Southern California Academy of Sciences 77:14-21.
  • Collins, C. T. & R. K. Brooke.  1976.  A review of the swifts of the genus Hirundapus (Aves: Apodidae). Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Contributions in Science, 282:1-22.

Jean regularly attended the scientific meetings of the American Ornithologists’ Union and the International Ornithological Congress, where she was a well-known and liked participant.  In the UMMZ Bird Division, Cohn periodically worked on a study of the anatomy of the hind limb in two “double-jointed” hawks, the African Polyboroides gymnogene and the Neotropical Geranospiza crane-hawk. 

“I first met Jean when I was an undergraduate student and she was starting graduate research, in 1959-1960, in the Bird Division, UMMZ,” recalled Professor Emeritus Robert Payne. “Jean, Jon Rood and I were the students in Bob Storer’s Birds of the World class that year. Jon completed his Ph.D. in 1963 with Michael Delany at Southampton University, in field studies of small mammals and their ectoparasites in Scilly Isles. Then, for many years he did field research in East Africa on small carnivore social behavior and ecology. Jean, Jon and I birded together in southeastern Michigan.

“In later years, Jean was an amateur birder in many places, including several trips to Attu in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. When she was in Ann Arbor she was often in the Bird Division, where she was interested in research by graduate students and others, especially research involving the collections.”

Cohn was from Fergus Falls, Minn. After receiving an A.B. from Radcliffe College (class of 1950), she worked as a chemist for a Proctor and Gamble lab north of Cincinnati.

“Jean got very interested in birds at almost the same time I got hitched up with the local bird club and the bird collection at U. Cincinnati in 1954,” said Jay Shepard, a fellow birder. “We took a LOT of trips together chasing birds within several hundred miles of Cincinnati. We kept in some limited contact after I went off to Miami U. just up the road, a few weekend trips, especially during summer vacations. Then she ran off to Ann Arbor!”

Entering the graduate program at the UMMZ in 1959, Jean overlapped with her future spouse, a gregarious extrovert graduate student in the UMMZ Insect Division, Theodore J. (“Ted”) Cohn.  Ted received his Ph.D. in 1961 and he and Jean relocated to San Diego, where Ted served on the faculty of San Diego State University from 1964-1993. Jean remained active in ornithological circles: see two of her letters to fellow avian biologists (To: Dr. M.T. Myres, University of Alberta, November 1964 and To: P.J.K. Burton, British Museum of Natural History, August 1969).  Upon retirement, Jean and Ted split their time between Ann Arbor (May-December) and San Diego (rest of the year) until ill health in recent years forced them to locate permanently in Ann Arbor.  They were valued members of our museum community and both are sorely missed.