As Martin Cowan, 86, grew curiouser and curiouser about his grandfather, daughter Alison, a former New York Times reporter, put her research skills to work.
The family had records showing that Jacob Cohen had spent two stints in the Denver sanatorium of the Jewish Consumptives’ Relief Society (JCRS).
But that wasn’t the half of it, they learned. Jacob had been in and out of the JCRS at least 17 times.
And even more would be revealed as professor Jeanne Abrams and her colleagues, among them Thyria Wilson, dug into DU’s Ira M. and Peyrle Hayutin Beck Memorial Archives, a motherlode of more than 1 million documents and other records, including those from the JCRS and National Jewish Health.
Jacob Cohen and Rosa Indig had immigrated to New York from Bialystok, then part of the Russian empire, in 1904. They moved to Denver with infant son Joseph to get medical help for Jacob’s tuberculosis. The JCRS provided world-class treatment to indigents at no charge.
“It was the Jewish community that first came to the aid of these patients,” Abrams notes. “By 1925, probably 60% of Denver’s population had come here because of TB,” including the patients’ family members.
Records indicate that Jacob Cohen was 25 when he first checked into the JCRS in 1908. “Ten of the last 32 years of his life were spent in that hospital,” Alison Cowan says.
Rose Cohen tried to keep the family afloat as a seamstress, and her handiwork is evident in the handsome clothes they wear in family portraits.
The University of Denver had given son Joseph a slot in its engineering program. At some point, he changed his surname to Cowan. Joseph graduated in 1929 and headed for New York, where he began a long career with the Consolidated Edison power company.
Jacob, meanwhile, had been readmitted to the JCRS for what would be his longest stay, 708 days. A scribbled note told the staff not to advise his son or sister about his deteriorating condition. Clearly, he didn’t want Joseph to race back to Denver and thus forsake the opportunity he had worked so hard to get.
Jacob was back in the JCRS when he died Aug. 4, 1939, at age 56, Alison reports.
His son went on to carve out a fine middle-class life, proud that he could support his mother, Rose, plus his own wife and children, and eventually retire to Florida, she says.
Martin and Alison Cowan credit Abrams and other DU staff members for unearthing key parts of their family history.
“Dr. Abrams is a gem,” Alison says. “She had the wisdom to preserve these records. My father had no hope of finding anything.”
“They were very grateful,” Abrams said. “(Alison’s) father emailed me for a month or two; he was very determined to track down every fact he could.”
Martin Cowan made a generous donation to the archives, she notes, and the family has pledged to do more.
“We are always grateful for funds that help us expand the work of the archives,” Abrams says. “Helping people reconnect with their ancestors through the JCRS Collection always make me feel how worthwhile our work is.”