Davida Coady, physician who treated refugees and helped eradicate smallpox in India, dies at 80

Davida Coady works in 1969 with children in Biafra, which broke away from Nigeria for a short-lived period. (Photo courtesy of family via The Washington Post)

Davida Coady, a physician-activist who treated refugees in Latin America and Asia, drew attention to catastrophic famine in Nigeria, aided in the eradication of smallpox in India and – after overcoming her own struggles with alcoholism – established an organization to treat substance abuse in the Bay Area, died May 3 at a hospice center near her home in Berkeley, California. She was 80.

The cause was complications of ovarian cancer, said her husband, Tom Gorham.

Although trained as a pediatrician, Dr. Coady chafed at the hard lines between medical specialties. “If you’re a doctor,” she wrote in a memoir, “you’re every kind of doctor.”

Working as a physician and medical instructor in 35 countries, Coady treated malnutrition, responded to botched abortions, removed parasitic worms, sought out smallpox patients and drew on childhood sewing lessons to repair cleft lips.

She focused primarily on preventive health care, an interest that led her to switch specialties in her late 50s and work as a substance abuse counselor in the Bay Area, where she was raised. In 1996 she founded Options Recovery Services, which has helped more than 10,000 people in the region become sober, and in recent years has trained inmates across the California state prison system to become substance abuse counselors themselves.

“Our society puts emphasis on curative medicine, rather than preventive medicine,” Coady told the magazine Columbia Medicine in 2016. “Public health has always been the stepchild. When you’re a doctor, people say: ‘Oh thank you for curing me or for my surgery.’ But nobody thanks the public health professional for saving them from smallpox or for their clean water. So you have to be very farsighted to go into public health, because there’s no instant gratification.”

The daughter of a Scottish-born coal miner, Coady was the first member of her family to graduate from high school. She was supposed to act like a woman, her mother told her, and leave medicine to men; instead, she modeled herself after Tom Dooley and Albert Schweitzer, physicians who organized hospitals and public health efforts in Southeast Asia and Africa, and performed clinical work in Liberia during her final year of medical school.

“Few people I know have contributed so much to the public good,” Keith Brodie, who joined her in Liberia and became president of Duke University, told Columbia Medicine.

Coady went on to establish herself as a leading authority on refugee health care, in large part through her work during the humanitarian crisis in Biafra, a short-lived state that declared independence from Nigeria in 1967, triggering a civil war. Working with a relief organization led by journalist Norman Cousins, she treated children suffering severe malnutrition until Biafra fell to the Nigerian military in 1970.

When Coady returned to the United States, she told reporters that 1 million people were on the verge of death from famine. She was granted an audience with Henry Kissinger, who was then President Richard M. Nixon’s national security adviser, as well as Elliot Richardson, the undersecretary of state.

“I told him that the country had collapsed and there were no services – no health care and no food. I said that what they needed was food, food, food,” Coady wrote in her 2018 memoir, “The Greatest Good.”

Richardson presented Coady with a cable from USAID, reading: “We have driven through the former Biafran enclave. There are no bodies on the street. There are no vultures in the air. There’s no starvation in Biafra and the children look nice and fat.”

Coady recalled saying, “First of all, no bodies in the street? Biafrans bury people immediately. No vultures in the air? If there are no bodies in the street, there are no vultures in the air. Fat? God, they were all swollen up with famine edema.”

While Coady’s response reportedly pushed the Nixon administration to enhance its efforts to supply food and medicine to Biafra, she was unable to return to the region to advise on the relief work. In Lagos, her identity as a former aid worker in Biafra was leaked to Nigerian officials – placing her life in danger, the U.S. ambassador told her. She was spirited out of the country with the help of “a bag of money,” she said, which a USAID attache used to bribe officials at the airport.

Coady went on to work for the Peace Corps, as acting medical director and then as a coordinator of assistance programs, and in the early 1970s was a field epidemiologist with the World Health Organization’s smallpox eradication campaign in India.

In a 2008 interview with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she said that many villages she visited “had never seen a white woman,” and rumors swirled that she was actually Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. (“I’d tell them I was not.”) One local politician declared it was better for people to die of starvation before they died of smallpox.

For the most part, however, she said her team met with success while vaccinating rural towns and the back streets of Kolkata. The last case of smallpox in India was located in 1975, and five years later smallpox was declared eradicated from the Earth.

“I love to look now at pictures of Indians and see that nobody under 30 has smallpox scars,” Coady told the CDC. “That just chokes me up.”

Davida Elizabeth Taylor was born in Berkeley on April 15, 1938. Her father worked as a shipping clerk at the nearby University of California, and her mother was a secretary at a law firm.

Coady – she took her name from her marriage to Patrick Coady, which ended in divorce – studied music at the College of the Pacific (now the University of the Pacific) in Stockton, California, before deciding to pursue medicine.

She was inspired by two female pediatricians who ran a camp for diabetic children, where she worked as a counselor, and graduated from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1965. Four years later she received a master’s degree in public health from Harvard University.

In between trips abroad, Coady worked to expand the Venice Family Clinic in Los Angeles and established a new health system for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. She also held faculty positions at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of California at San Francisco.

Her work in Latin America, where she spent much of the 1980s, moved her to participate in demonstrations against the former School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, where she was often joined by actor Martin Sheen, a friend. (Critics dubbed it the “School for Dictators” for the Latin American military leaders it counted among its former students.)

Coady said she drank heavily through the years, but had stopped by the mid-1990s, when she was working as an emergency-room pediatrician at a children’s hospital in Oakland. Her encounters with abused children, victimized by parents struggling with drugs or alcohol, led her to start Options.

One of her earliest clients was Gorham, her sole immediate survivor.

“For over 10 years, I was a street alcoholic, and inevitably I’d be in jail,” he said in a phone interview. He was in a holding cell when he met Coady, whom a judge suggested she approach for possible treatment.

In 2002, the couple married in a ceremony in the judge’s backyard. Gorham is now the executive director of Options.

“I’ll be coming up 20 years sober in September,” he said, “thanks to the program she started.”

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