Dr. Davida Coady, an activist pediatrician whose passion for public health led her to treat impoverished people in Africa, Central America and Asia before pivoting later in her career to help addicts recover from substance abuse, died on May 3 in Alamo, Calif. She was 80.
Tom Gorham, her husband, said the cause was ovarian cancer. She died in a hospice near her home in Berkeley.
“Our society puts emphasis on curative medicine, rather than preventive medicine,” she told Columbia Medicine, a publication of Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, 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 clean water.”
Dr. Coady was part of the famine relief efforts in the breakaway state of Biafra, where some two million people died, mostly from starvation, after it declared its independence from Nigeria in 1967, igniting a civil war that lasted to 1970. She was part of a team that hunted down the last smallpox cases in India. She helped rebuild the medical infrastructure in Nicaragua after the Sandinistas overthrew President Anastasio Somoza. And she organized humanitarian relief for refugees fleeing to Honduras from the civil war in El Salvador.
“For some of us, like Davida,” said Dr. Gretchen Berggren, a longtime medical missionary who met Dr. Coady in Haiti, “this is a spiritual calling.”
Dr. Coady left Biafra for Deschapelles, Haiti, partly to study the work being done by Dr. Berggren and her husband, Warren, at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital, which had a ward full of severely malnourished children.
“She was very passionate about our idea of detecting malnutrition early and developing early village- or community-based treatment,” Dr. Berggren said in a telephone interview.
“At the time,” she added, “it was thought that many of these children died of low body temperature, because that’s part of malnutrition. We used to keep them warm, but she taught us that if you got enough calories into these kids early enough, you can combat hypothermia.”
Dr. Coady returned to Biafra briefly in late 1969. But with the war zone closing in on her group, she fled to Gabon, where she told reporters that the situation in Biafra had grown so desperate, there could be a million deaths from malnutrition within two weeks.
Back in the United States, she was asked to testify before the Senate on Biafran relief and was invited to meet Henry A. Kissinger, then President Richard M. Nixon’s national security adviser, and Elliot Richardson, the under secretary of state.
In her autobiography, “The Greatest Good,” published this year, Dr. Coady wrote that Mr. Richardson showed her a cable, written by an officer of the United States Agency for International Development, that concluded that there was no starvation in Biafra because there were no bodies in the streets or vultures in the air and the children were fat.
“No bodies in the street?” she wrote, recalling her anger. “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 with famine edema.”
Mr. Richardson was angry at the officer’s ignorance, she wrote, and asked her to go back to Nigeria to document the famine. But after she arrived, she learned she had been identified to the Nigerian Red Cross as a Biafran sympathizer. Fearing for her safety, she left the country.
When she headed to India a few years later to work with a smallpox-eradication team sent by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the goal was to find every remaining case of the disease and immunize everybody around each infected person. Despite some resistance in India, their efforts succeeded.
“It was astounding to be part of this effort,” she wrote, “and watch the maps as the disease disappeared.”
After marrying a former priest, Patrick Coady, in the United States, Dr. Coady (her maiden name was Taylor) went back to India, where smallpox had become so rare that her group offered 25-rupee payments to patients with verifiable cases and to the health-care workers who brought the patients in.
She later moved to war-racked Central America, where she worked in refugee camps in Honduras in the early 1980s. One of her recruits, Sarah Shannon, recalled in a telephone interview that Dr. Coady had been working part time in Honduras while teaching pediatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and treating patients as a volunteer at a family clinic in the Venice section of the city.
“She’d get on a plane Thursdays to Honduras, but we weren’t near any airports, so it was a six- to 10-hour drive to where we were,” Ms. Shannon said. “We’d see patients, have meetings, talk to the U.N. and — boom, boom, boom — she’d fly home on Tuesdays.”
Ms. Shannon, now the executive director of Hesperian Health Guides, a nonprofit health information publisher in Berkeley, credited Dr. Coady with inspiring her to go beyond hospital walls into desperate worlds where people needed adequate food, clean water and sound sanitation systems.
“I’m in public health because of her,” she added, “and thousands of people can say the same.”
Davida Elizabeth Taylor was born in Berkeley on April 15, 1938. Her father, David, a former coal miner in Scotland, worked as a shipping clerk and forklift operator for the University of California, Berkeley. Her mother, Elizabeth (Perry) Taylor, was a secretary.
After high school, Davida attended the College of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., where she changed her major from music to pre-med. She earned her medical degree at Columbia in 1965. As a medical student she spent two months in Liberia, whetting her desire to work in Africa.
“One thing about third-world medicine is that there isn’t a lot of fuss made over specialties and credentials,” she wrote in her memoir. “If you’re a doctor, you’re every kind of doctor.”
She received a master’s in public health from Harvard.
In addition to her public health work, Dr. Coady marched in defense of migrant farm workers, protested nuclear weapons proliferation and joined the actor Martin Sheen and the Rev. Daniel J. Berrigan, among others, in a demonstration against the training of Latin American soldiers in a program at Fort Benning, Ga.
In the mid-1990s her public health work took a turn. While working in the emergency room at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, Calif., she found that the physically abused children she treated were almost always victims of people who had abused alcohol and drugs. That led her to ask judges to let her help people arrested on drug-related charges to get into treatment programs. And that led her to start Options Recovery Services, which provides outpatient treatment in three locations in the Bay Area and operates 10 recovery residences.
By then she was a recovering alcoholic herself and long divorced from Mr. Coady. At the request of a county judge in Berkeley, she met the man who would become her second husband, Mr. Gorham, in a holding cell.
“I don’t think you can help him, but why don’t you talk to him anyway?” the judge asked Dr. Coady. Mr. Gorham, a former trucker, had been mired in alcoholism and homelessness for a decade and had been arrested some 300 times.
“She got me into her program and I was off the streets for good on Sept. 8, 1988,” Mr. Gorham said in a telephone interview. He recovered, joined the staff, became a certified alcohol and drug counselor and earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology.
He and Dr. Coady were married in 2002; the ceremony was in the judge’s backyard. Mr. Gorham is now the executive director of Options.
“Before Tom,” Dr. Coady wrote in her memoir, “I hadn’t experienced being loved and feeling loved, at the same time, with one person.”
He is her only survivor.