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Priscilla T. Neuman Cohn Ferrater Mora, 85, heiress who became philosophy professor, animal-rights activist

Dr. Cohn had a privileged upbringing in Radnor Township, but she put some distance between it and herself by becoming a mother, an academic, and an animal activist.

Priscilla T. Neuman Cohn Ferrater Mora
Priscilla T. Neuman Cohn Ferrater MoraRead moreCourtesy of Clifford B. Cohn (custom credit)

Priscilla T. Neuman Cohn Ferrater Mora, 85, of Villanova, an heiress to the Publicker Industries alcohol fortune who at age 17 married the son of a dry cleaner and later became a philosophy professor and a leading advocate for animal rights, died Thursday, June 27, at her home.

Her son, Clifford B. Cohn, said the cause of death was complications from Parkinson’s disease.

She was the granddaughter of Harry and Rose Publicker, who in 1913 opened a distillery on the Delaware riverfront between Bigler Street and Packer Avenue. The company made millions from the whiskey and industrial alcohol products it produced.

Her parents were Simon and Helen Neuman, her home a 69-acre estate called Inver House in Radnor Township, next door to the famous Ardrossan. Her neighbors there were socialites Robert Montgomery Scott and his mother, Hope, on whose life the 1940 romantic comedy The Philadelphia Story was based.

She rode horses with Robert Montgomery Scott, but otherwise she was lonely, her son said. She turned for company to books, animals, and her nanny, Mary Alice Gallagher.

“She was the quintessential poor little rich girl,” her son said, and her adulthood was an exercise in moving beyond her privileged upbringing.

She attended Haverford Friends School until the eighth grade and enrolled in the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr.

In the spring of 1951, during her senior year, the 17-year-old Miss Neuman eloped with Willard Cohn, 20, the son of a dry-cleaning operator in Wayne. The couple lived with his parents in a house on Lancaster Avenue.

“Neither of the newlyweds would say when or where they were married,” The Inquirer reported on April 15, 1951. “They did state that the marriage came as a surprise to their respective parents.”

“There was a huge amount of friction,” her son said. “But by the time I was born, everybody had made up.”

Baldwin allowed her to graduate, but her plans to attend Sarah Lawrence College were scrapped once her son was born. When he started kindergarten, she enrolled in Bryn Mawr College. Between 1956 and 1969, she earned a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a doctoral degree in philosophy.

The Cohns separated in 1969 and divorced in 1980.

She wrote a Ph.D. thesis on the philosopher Martin Heidegger under the direction of José Ferrater Mora, a noted Catalan philosopher and academic, who was teaching at Bryn Mawr. They fell in love and married in 1980.

Known professionally as Dr. Cohn, she taught philosophy for 35 years at Pennsylvania State University. She wrote in English and Spanish on animal, environmental, and ethical topics as the history of philosophy.

She was named professor of philosophy at Penn State in 1982 and pioneered courses in animal ethics. She lectured on five continents until retiring in 2001 with the title of professor emerita.

“She was inspired to become an animal-rights activist by a visit to see the baby seals on the ice floes in Canada and reading Animal Liberation, the 1975 founding philosophical treatise on the animal-rights movement,” her son said.

After her husband died in 1991, she became active in the Ferrater Mora Chair of Contemporary Thought at the University of Girona in Spain. The chair brings together thinkers from different disciplines.

One of her books, Applied Ethics, written with her husband in 1981, contained the first essay on animal rights published in Spain, Cohn said. She published books on controlling wildlife populations in 1990s.

She founded P.N.C. Corp., a Philadelphia-based foundation that advocates using contraception instead of sharpshooters to address the local overpopulation of white-tailed deer.

In 1985, she organized opposition to a planned deer hunt in Ridley Creek State Park. When state wildlife officials vowed to go ahead, she told the New York Times: “They’ve refused a safe, free and humane alternative to slaughter. A lot of people say that hunting is as American as apple pie. But we’re not living on the Plains with herds of buffalo anymore.”

Willard Cohn died in 1991. In addition to her son, she is survived by a grandson.

At her request, there will be no services. Memorial donations may be made to P.N.C. Corp., care of Clifford B. Cohn, 1604 Locust St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19103.