Norman Cousins

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Norman Cousins in 1976

Norman Cousins (June 24, 1915 – November 30, 1990) was an American political journalist, author, professor, and world peace advocate.

Early life and education

Cousins was born in West Hoboken, New Jersey, which became Union City in 1925). At age 11, he was misdiagnosed with tuberculosis and placed in a sanatorium. Despite this, he was an athletic youth,[1] and he claimed that as a young boy he “set out to discover exuberance.”

Cousins attended Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx, New York City, graduating on February 3, 1933. He edited the high school paper, "The Square Deal," where his editing abilities were already in evidence.[2] Cousins received a bachelor's degree from Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City.

Career as journalist and editor

He joined the staff of the New York Evening Post (now the New York Post) in 1934, and in 1935 was hired by Current History as a book critic. He later ascended to the position of managing editor. He also befriended the staff of the Saturday Review of Literature (later renamed Saturday Review), which had its offices in the same building, and by 1940, joined the staff of that publication as well. He was named editor-in-chief in 1942, a position he would hold until 1972. Under his direction, circulation of the publication increased from 20,000 to 650,000.

Cousins's philosophy toward his work was exemplified by his instructions to his staff “not just to appraise literature, but to try to serve it, nurture it, safeguard it.” Cousins believed that “there is a need for writers who can restore to writing its powerful tradition of leadership in crisis.” He was a lifetime believer in the power of hope, and in the realism of optimism. One of his well-known lines, "Life is an adventure in forgiveness," has survived him. But Cousins had no patience for those who consciously bend truth, whether for personal expediency or in the political sphere. The integrity of words, in speech and in writing, was sacred to him. To his mind, the honest use of words was an absolute value, and the distinguishing mark of the human being.

Political views and activism

Politically, Cousins was a tireless advocate of liberal causes, such as nuclear disarmament and world peace, which he promoted through his writings in Saturday Review. In a 1984 forum at the University of California, Berkeley, titled “Quest for Peace,” Cousins recalled the long editorial he wrote on August 6, 1945, the day the United States dropped the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Titled “The Modern Man is Obsolete,” Cousins, who stated that he felt "the deepest guilt" over the bomb's use on human beings, discussed in the editorial the social and political implications of the atomic bomb and nuclear power. He rushed to get it published the next day in the Review, and the response was considerable, as it was reprinted in newspapers around the country and enlarged into a book that was reprinted in different languages.

Despite his role as an advocate of liberalism, he jokingly expressed opposition to women entering the workforce. In 1939, upon learning that the number of women in the workforce was close to the number of unemployed males, he offered this solution: “Simply fire the women, who shouldn’t be working anyway, and hire the men. Presto! No unemployment. No relief rolls. No depression.” .[3]

Monument to Norman Cousins at the Hiroshima Peace Park in Japan.

In the 1950s, Cousins played a prominent role in bringing the Hiroshima Maidens, a group of twenty-five Hibakusha, to the United States for medical treatment.

In the 1960s, he began the American-Soviet Dartmouth Conferences for peace process.

Cousins also wrote a collection of non-fiction books on the same subjects, such as the 1953 Who Speaks for Man? , which advocated a World Federation and nuclear disarmament. He also served as president of the World Federalist Association and chairman of the Committee for Sane Nuclear Policy, which in the 1950s warned that the world was bound for a nuclear holocaust if the threat of the nuclear arms race was not stopped. Cousins became an unofficial ambassador in the 1960s, and his facilitating communication between the Holy See, the Kremlin, and the White House helped lead to the Soviet-American test ban treaty, for which he was thanked by President John F. Kennedy and Pope John XXIII, the latter of whom awarded him his personal medallion. Cousins was also awarded the Eleanor Roosevelt Peace Award in 1963, the Family Man of the Year Award in 1968, the United Nations Peace Medal in 1971, and the Niwano Peace Prize in 1990.[4] He also served on the board of trustees for Science Service, now known as Society for Science & the Public, from 1972 to 1975. His proudest moment by his own reckoning, however, was when Albert Einstein called him to Princeton University to discuss issues of nuclear disarmament and world federalism.

Illness and recovery

Cousins also served as Adjunct Professor of Medical Humanities for the School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he did research on the biochemistry of human emotions, which he long believed were the key to human beings’ success in fighting illness. It was a belief he maintained even as he battled a sudden-onset case of an unidentified, crippling illness tentatively diagnosed as Ankylosing Spondyitis, for which he took massive intravenous doses of Vitamin C, and the recovery of which was accelerated by self-induced bouts of laughter brought on by videos of the television show Candid Camera, and by various comic films. Later in life he and his wife Ellen together fought his heart disease, again with exercise, a daily regimen of vitamins, and with the good nutrition provided by Ellen's organic garden..[5][6] He wrote a collection of best-selling non-fiction books on illness and healing, as well as a 1980 autobiographical memoir, Human Options: An Autobiographical Notebook. .[7] The diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis is currently in doubt and it has been suggested that Cousins may actually have suffered from post-streptococcal reactive arthritis. His struggle with that illness is detailed in the book and movie Anatomy of an Illness.

Told that he had little chance of surviving, Cousins developed his own recovery program. His positive attitude was not new to him, however. He had always been an optimist, known for his kindness to others, and his robust love of life itself. "I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep," he reported. "When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, [Ellen and I] would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval."

Movie portrayal

Cousins was portrayed by actor Ed Asner in a 1984 television movie, Anatomy of an Illness, which was based on Cousins's 1979 book, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing. Cousins was not pleased with the commercial nature of the movie, and with Hollywood's sensationalistic exaggerations of his experience. He and other members of the Cousins family were also taken aback by the casting of Asner, due to the fact that the two men bore scant physical resemblance to each other. Once the film was completed, however, Cousins was said by Asner to look upon the movie with a certain degree of tolerance, if not with delight.


Cousins received the Albert Schweitzer Prize in 1990. He died of heart failure on November 30, 1990, in Los Angeles, California, having survived years longer than his doctors predicted: 10 years after his first heart attack, 26 years after his collagen illness, and 36 years after his doctors first diagnosed his heart disease.[8]

He and his wife Ellen raised four children: Dr. Andrea Cousins of North Hampton, Massachusetts; the now deceased Amy Cousins; Dr. Candis Cousins Kerns of Oakland, California; and by the writer Sarah {Kit Cousins) Shapiro of Jerusalem, Israel. He is survived by his children and by 26 grandchildren, and he is buried at the Mt. Lebanon Jewish Cemetery in New Jersey, alongside his wife and parents.

An obituary containing further information, mainly of his writing and editing career, was published by the New York Times in the December 2, 1990, edition.[9]

See also

Selected works


Cousins received the inaugural Helmerich Award in 1985. The Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award is presented annually by the Tulsa Library Trust.


  1. "Norman Cousins: Editor And Writer". Retrieved December 10, 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Details of Cousins' high school career were found in the private memorabilia of Hilda (Wronker) Taft, a classmate.
  3. Ware, Susan. "Women and the Great Depression." The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2014. <>
  4. Ken Read-Brown. "Norman Cousins:Editor and writer". Unitarian's Friends.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Cousins, Norman, The Healing Heart : Antidotes to Panic and Helplessness, New York : Norton, 1983. ISBN 0-393-01816-4
  6. Cousins, Norman, Anatomy of an illness as perceived by the patient : reflections on healing and regeneration, introd. by René Dubos, New York : Norton, 1979. ISBN 0-393-01252-2
  7. Siân Griffiths (2005). Change and Development in Specialist Public Health Practice: Leadership, Partnership and Delivery. Radcliffe Publishing. p. 43. ISBN 1-85775-697-5. Retrieved December 18, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Read-Brown, Ken. "Norman Cousins: Editor and Writer". Retrieved January 25, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Pace, Eric (December 2, 1990). "Norman Cousins Is Dead at 75;Led Saturday Review for Decades – Obituary". Retrieved December 10, 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • The Union City Reporter; January 12, 2006. “Native Sons and Daughters: Prominent author, peace advocate Norman Cousins Lived Here” by Jessica Rosero.

External links