Lives of the fellows

Nicholas Cohen

b.9 April 1938 d.15 September 2010
BA Cantab(1959) MB BChir(1962) LMSSA(1962) MRCP(1968) MD(1974) FRCP Edin(1985) FRCP(1986) FFRCMI(1986) MFCM(1988)

Nicholas Cohen was an epidemiologist who spent much of his life working in deprived communities in Africa and Asia. His father was a surgeon who ran a successful private practice in London. Educated at Westminster School, he studied medicine at Trinity College, Cambridge and Guy’s Hospital in London, qualifying in 1962. After house jobs at Guy’s he spent a year as a senior intern at the American Hospital in Paris from 1963 to 1964. He returned to London to work at the Royal Northern Hospital and then went back to Guy’s, as a research fellow.

In 1969 he answered a job advert in the Lancet that was to change his life. He travelled to Lesotho to become medical superintendant (and sole medical practitioner) at St James, a 35 bed mission hospital in Mantsonyane. He relished the experience and later wrote that he ‘learned what it means to live on one bag of maize flour a day, what it feels like to go barefoot, clothed only in a blanket in the freezing winter days, and how many children die of diseases that elsewhere are entirely preventable’.

On his return to the UK in 1971 he spent a year studying epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and then moved to the University of Nottingham Medical School, where he was a lecturer in the department of community health. By 1975 he was back in the field as he joined the smallpox eradication programme in Ethiopia run by the World Health Organization (WHO). Two years later, having totally eradicated smallpox in the region, he returned to the UK and became co-director of the British Regional Heart Study run by the department of clinical epidemiology and general practice at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine. The information gleaned by this research was to prove key for future health policy in the country.

After spending a year in Lesotho on a project for the World Food Programme in 1978, he went to Bangladesh as a chief medical officer initially sponsored by the Save the Children Fund. Among several projects that he worked on during his 10 years in the country one of the most important was to try to improve basic eye care, as many children were becoming blind due to nutritional inadequacies. In Dhaka he ran a 40 bed unit for severely malnourished children and worked on a research project on vitamin A deficiency. From 1982 to 1986 he was director of Helen Keller International, also in Dhaka. In 1987 he spent some time at the Mother Theresa Home for the Dying in Calcutta, before returning to Europe in 1988 to work for the WHO on their expanded programme on immunization.

The author of numerous scientific papers on infant mortality, blindness and health problems in the developing world, he also published a book, co-written with René Dument, the French environmental activist, entitled The growth of hunger: concerning a new politics of agriculture. (London, Marion Boyars, 1980).

In the mid 1990s he began to develop the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, but struggled to keep up with his many areas of research. He moved to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada and spent the last 11 years of his life there. His son Yvan said of him that ‘the predictable route of becoming a doctor and working in the UK just wasn’t exciting or challenging enough for him. He was somebody who devoured life, who was curious about almost everything, who loved people and had a strong thirst for adventure. Most of all I think he wanted to give his life meaning. That was why he chose the path of public health and to work in the developing world where he hoped he might also make some difference to other people’s lives’. He was survived by his wife, Nancy née Jamieson; their children Yvan, Natasha, Alexis and Louis-Felix; and grandchildren Noeli and Agan.

RCP editor

[Lancet 2010 376 1536; The Times Colonist - accessed 9 June 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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