Literature prize founder David Cohen dies, aged 89

Literature prize founder David Cohen dies, aged 89

Dr David Cohen, founder of the eponymous £40,000 literature prize, has died aged 89.

Known as one of Britain's most active cultural philanthropists, he had recently recovered from non-Hodgkin lymphoma but subsequently contracted leukaemia. He died on 4th August.

The David Cohen Prize for Literature, was devised with The Arts Council of Great Britain in 1992 when Cohen responded to a newspaper interview in which former Arts Council chair Lord Palumbo, said the Council aspired to found a literary award bigger than the Booker Prize. Cohen contacted the Arts Council and endowed the initiative. The prize now awards £40,000 biennially and honours a living writer from the UK or the Republic of Ireland for a lifetime’s achievement in literature. The last recipient was Tom Stoppard in 2017 with alumni including Seamus Heaney, V S Naipaul, Beryl Bainbridge and Hilary Mantel. The winner of the 2019 David Cohen Prize for Literature will be announced on 12th November.

Claire Malcolm, founding c.e.o. of New Writing North, which has managed the prize since 2017, said: “It was a real honour to work with David on the prize that he founded and for which he had an enormous passion. We will continue to work with the Cohen family to maintain the work of the David Cohen Prize for Literature, which of course now carries an added meaning for all of us, as we also look to uphold David’s legacy.”

Journalist and broadcaster Mark Lawson, chair of the prize for his fifth term, said: “David Cohen had a considerable love for - and knowledge of - culture in general, and literature in particular. 

"During my decade of involvement with the prize, as the current chair of judges, I found him to be a man of exceptional intelligence, enthusiasm, curiosity, kindness, and good humour.”

He added: “His aim was for the David Cohen Prize to become a British / Irish equivalent of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and it quietly pleased him when, on a number of occasions, his award recognised writers who were only later honoured by Stockholm. The prize now becomes his memorial, and his family will continue its great service to writers and readers.”

Cohen was a GP until 2000 as well as an arts benefactor. His career in philanthropy started in 1965, when together with his father, John S Cohen, his mother, brother and sister, he set up the John S Cohen Foundation. Later, the foundation merged with the David Cohen Family Trust (founded by Cohen in 1980 with his then wife, Veronica). The trust deals with around 3,000 requests for money a year, focusing on education, conservation, environment and the arts

In 2001, Cohen was awarded a CBE in 2001 for charitable services, especially to the arts. He is survived by daughters Imogen and Olivia and his second wife, the arts administrator Jillian Barker.