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Catherine Coburn; led Cambridge group, advocated for poor

Catherine Crone Coburn

WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF/FILE/1999

Catherine Crone Coburn worked with the nonprofit Management Sciences for Health for two decades.

Catherine Crone Coburn found ways to bring health services to some of the world’s poorest populations, a calling that had its roots in aspirations she had as a young girl.

At only 7, Ms. Coburn told the Globe in 1999, she decided that she wanted to work in developing countries for the United Nations.

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“Maybe it was all those National Geographics I read, looking at pictures of poor kids,” she said. “Maybe it was because my grandparents were Russian and Irish immigrants and were very, very poor, working at very menial jobs. . . . I had a sense that things could be better for people.”

Ms. Coburn, who worked with the Cambridge-based nonprofit Management Sciences for Health for more than two decades, died Feb. 18 in Avista Adventist Hospital in Louisville, Colo., from an infection that occurred while she was visiting relatives. She was 64 and lived in Brookline.

“Scores of MSH staff and country health leaders benefitted from Catherine’s desire to make a difference,” Dr. Jonathan Quick, the agency’s chief executive, said in an e-mail.

He recalled Ms. Coburn’s “boundless energy, drive for excellence, and commitment to MSH’s mission” to improve and save the lives of the world’s “poorest and most vulnerable.”

Ms. Coburn worked for Management Sciences for Health from 1981 to 2002 and was its chief executive beginning in 1998.

The agency, she told the Globe in 1999, faces “very simple management challenges, like getting medicine to a dock and then to a warehouse and then training people to use the medicine and use clean gloves and sterilized instruments. This is not cardiovascular surgery. We focus on the small pieces we can fix.”

The work took her all over the world, as she helped show everyone from physicians to uneducated mothers how to address health issues, mainly those affecting women and children.

Dr. Fred Hartman, a physician with the agency who often traveled with Ms. Coburn, said “she would take my ideas and make them better.”

While addressing problems from dehydration to family planning, he said, Ms. Coburn remained passionate about “achieving social change through effective training.”

Before working with the agency, Ms. Coburn was a director at World Education, a nonprofit that promotes education in developing countries. She also taught at schools of public health at Harvard University, Boston University, and Columbia University.

In addition, she worked a few years ago as managing director of Bingham Charitable Advisers, which offers assistance to people, families, foundations, and businesses on philanthropic matters.

Besides her professional work with populations in other countries, Ms. Coburn donated her talents to several groups.

From 2002 until she died, she was on the board of directors of the May Institute, which provides support to people with autism and other developmental disabilities.

“Catherine was a true friend and steadfast support,” said Lauren Solatar, the institute’s president, who added that the organization “benefited from her considerable talent and wisdom.”

As a trustee of the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence in Boston, Ms. Coburn helped recruit current president Linda Chin. Ms. Coburn, Chin said, was a mentor who “was so generous and filled me with courage.”

“She was so smart, and so interested in empowering women,” said Chin, who added that Ms. Coburn was especially good at “forging collaborations that other people might have found intimidating or impossible. So many individuals in this world have benefitted from the work she did.”

The task force is creating an internship in Ms. Coburn’s memory and will honor her and other women this spring at a concert by the group’s community partner, the Longwood Symphony Orchestra.

Born in Boston, Ms. Coburn grew up in Waltham and Lexington. She graduated from Lexington High School and went to Smith College, where she graduated in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies. Two years later she received a master’s in education from Columbia University, and in 1984 graduated with a master’s in management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

She was living in New York City in 1979 when friends set her up on a blind date with John Coburn, a Boston lawyer who is known as Jeff and was in New York on business.

Soon after, she took a job at Management Sciences for Health and moved to Cambridge. The Coburns married in 1983 and lived in the South End before moving to Brookline.

Avid tennis players, they often brought racquets to “some pretty exotic places,” her husband said.

Ms. Coburn — who spoke Spanish, French, and Portuguese — loved vacationing at the family’s home in Chatham and was a devoted sports fan, he said. She was known among family and friends for dinner parties she frequently hosted and for her love of dancing.

“She could dance for hours,” her husband said.

Ms. Coburn passed her love of travel to her son and daughter. Julia lives in San Jose, Costa Rica, where she just finished Fulbright scholarship studies. Alex is studying on a Fulbright in Cambridge, England.

Although Ms. Coburn’s work often took her far from home, “I never felt her absence,” said Julia, who was 11 when she accompanied her mother to Japan and Malaysia.

“She was very open about her work with us,” Julia said, adding that while her mother’s career was “her mission in life,” she also “was always at our soccer games.”

A memorial service will be announced for Ms. Coburn, who in addition to her husband, daughter, and son leaves a sister, Nadine O’Hara of Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., and a brother, Anthony Crone of Boulder, Colo.

Alex said his mother was “his biggest supporter,” adding that she “especially appreciated the fact that she had two happy and healthy children.”

“An independent thinker,” Ms. Coburn was “never afraid of authority or limited by convention,” Alex said. “She provided Julia and me with an incredible example of what it means to lead a consequential life and to be passionate about your career.”

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at kmck66@comcast.net.
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