Waldo Cohn, prominent nuclear scientist, member of the Manhattan project, biochemist, and founder and first conductor of the Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra, the state's oldest continuing symphony, came to Oak Ridge in 1943 with a biochemistry Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley via science experience at the University of Chicago. His most significant contribution came in the peacetime application of nuclear science, especially in the development, production, and distribution of radioisotopes.
Cohn also was a prominent civic and cultural leader in Oak Ridge for over fifty years. Immediately upon his arrival in 1943 he initiated chamber music sessions in his home. When the group grew too large, rehearsals moved to the high school. As the Oak Ridge Symphonette, it gave its first concert in June 1944. In November, having added brass and woodwind players, the symphony presented its first full-fledged concert. Cohn continued as conductor for the next eleven years. Although classic compositions were standard, the conductor also introduced works by Americans such as Edward McDowell and Henry Cowell.
Isaac Stern appeared as soloist in 1948 as a favor to Cohn and to help get the Oak Ridge Civic Music Association started. Other early soloists included Percy Grainger, Yalta Menuhin, Nadia Reisenberg, and Samuel Sanders.
Cohn died in Oak Ridge on August 27, 1999.