Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Wilbur J. Cohen (1968–1969): Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare

Wilbur Joseph Cohen was born on June 10, 1913, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Cohen traveled to Washington, where he worked for Edwin Witte, a former professor of his and the executive director of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's cabinet committee on economic security.

While serving as Witte's assistant, Cohen helped to write the 1935 Social Security Act, and for many years thereafter he served as an adviser to the Social Security Board. In 1953, he took a job as the director of the Bureau of Research and Statistics of the Social Security Administration. He left the bureau in 1956 and took a teaching position as professor of public welfare at the University of Michigan. Cohen remained in Ann Arbor until 1961, when President John Kennedy appointed him assistant secretary in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW).

Cohen was given the task of acquiring congressional approval for HEW's legislation and met with a great deal of success, guiding roughly sixty-five bills relating to HEW's area of jurisdiction through Congress. However, he failed to secure the approval of two of Kennedy's most prized pieces of legislation: a Medicare bill, which linked Social Security and medical care for the elderly; and Kennedy's education bill, granting federal aid to elementary and secondary schools.

Passage of both bills became possible after the 1964 elections, when Democrats gained seats in both the House and the Senate. Cohen was involved in ensuring the passage of both pieces of legislation.

In April 1965, Cohen was promoted to undersecretary, becoming secretary of HEW in 1968. He initiated extensive changes in the department, and he reorganized its public health division, with a new assistant secretary under HEW's auspices assumed many of the duties of the Public Health Service (PHS). As a part of the reorganization the National Institute of Health, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Library of Medicine were brought into a new agency called the Health Services and Mental Health Administration.

In January 1969, when President Lyndon Johnson left office, Cohen took a job as the dean of the University of Michigan School of Education. Wilbur Cohen died on May 17, 1987.