Well into his career performing and teaching surgery, Ned Cabot paused to reflect and summed up his very full life in very few words.
“When not at work in the hospital, my time is about equally divided between the mountains and the sea, and I fear that our society poses a real threat to these resources,” he wrote in 1980 for the 15th report of his Harvard class.
A sailor in the North Atlantic and a rancher in Colorado, Dr. Cabot also was comfortable in Boston’s prestigious operating rooms and boardrooms. To help preserve resources that are finite and threatened, he gave time and money to organizations from the Maine Coast to the mountainous West, and helped run foundations created by his family.
Dr. Cabot, who set aside surgery about a dozen years ago to devote all his time to philanthropy and his multifaceted outdoor pursuits, died Sept. 1 when a wave swept him off his sloop Cielita, off St. Georges Bay, Newfoundland, where he was completing a journey from Iceland to Greenland and the Labrador coast. He was 69 and had lived in Belmont most of his adult life.
His resume may have been the only one in philanthropic circles that included board work for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Handel and Haydn Society, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in Missoula, Mont. One day he might be on call, rushing out in the middle of the night to perform an emergency surgery. The next, he would be off to the Canadian Rockies, stepping off a helicopter to ski untouched snow.
“He was probably one of the most active people I knew in terms of quantity and variety, and constantly being in action,” said Peter Ellis of Cambridge, a longtime friend and sailing companion. “If he wasn’t doing one thing, he was doing another.”
Dr. Cabot, friends said, was notable not only for the breadth of his passions, but for the depth of his understanding.
“There are a lot of people you meet who know something superficially,” said Dr. Robert Quinlan of North Grafton, a surgeon who had sailed with Dr. Cabot. “When Ned knew something, he would know it from the ground up and be able to teach it and explain it to others. And he did this in many, many areas. He had an insatiable hunger for knowledge.”
Just as unquenchable was Dr. Cabot’s desire to introduce others to his pursuits, including the need to protect precious resources.
“That whole vigorous engagement with the natural world is what he loved to do,” said Grant Parker of Missoula, a friend who is general counsel of the Elk Foundation. “He would always try to figure out how to encourage people to support the conservation causes he believed in so much.”
The youngest of five children, Dr. Cabot drew much of his drive, and many of his passions, from his father, Thomas D. Cabot, who turned Cabot Corp., the family chemical and performance materials business, into a thriving international concern.
“Frankly he has a lot of my father’s traits, more so than any of the rest of us, including his love of the outdoors, of the sea, of skiing, sailing, and horseback riding,” said his brother Louis of Sarasota, Fla. “The whole family has been conservation-minded, but my father was especially that way, and so was Ned.”
Edmund Billings Cabot was born in Waltham and grew up in Weston. He graduated in 1961 from Phillips Academy in Andover, and in 1965 from Harvard College.
Having loved the outdoors since childhood, he initially played in a banjo band, and taught math and was a ski coach for two years at Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale.
While attending Harvard Medical School, from which he graduated in 1972, Dr. Cabot married Mary Goodwin, and they had two daughters.
Their marriage ended in divorce and he taught for a couple of years at the University of Colorado.
Returning to the East, he lived in Belmont, taught at Harvard Medical School, and was a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. In 1982, he married Betsy Washburn, a daughter of famed mountaineer Bradford Washburn.
Life beyond the medical profession always beckoned, though, and in the late 1990s he took a three-month sabbatical to sail to Labrador and circumnavigate Newfoundland.
“My sailing adventure re-opened my horizons and restored my appreciation of life itself,” he wrote in 2000 for a Harvard class report.
“I suppose I’ve known all along that there was a lot more to life than a professional career, but surgery has been a very demanding mistress, and it has given me a self identity that will be hard to shake.”
Retiring soon after, he was a founder and chairman of Cabot Wellington LLC, and was a trustee for the family’s philanthropic concerns.
Dr. Cabot also was very involved in charitable groups such as the Elk Foundation, the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Sailors for the Sea in Newport, R.I., and the Maine Coast Heritage Trust in Topsham, Maine.
“I think his charitable work was key to who he was as a person,” Ellis said. “He also was a very devoted family man. He packed far more into any given year than most other people. He had the resources to do that, but he also had the desire and the energy.”
The accident that took Dr. Cabot’s life occurred near the end of a voyage he had planned to complete over the course of seven summers, beginning in 2005. He had sailed to Iceland, Greenland, and Scotland, circumnavigated Ireland, and sailed past the Norway coast en route to the Baltic Sea.
Dr. Cabot, who favored the North Atlantic because it wasn’t crowded, wrote about his trips and was an able guide to those who accompanied him on portions of the journeys.
“He did not suffer fools gladly, and I did not meet many on his boat,” Quinlan said. “He was very selective, but he was always willing to teach you anything if you asked a question.”
Quinlan added that “he had this knack of bringing people together. He brought people together who enjoyed each other’s company, who became better people for being with him. You’re not going to find a lot of people like Ned around.”
In addition to his wife and brother, Dr. Cabot leaves three daughters, Nina Cabot-Jones of Spain, Virginia Cabot-Selles of Seattle, and Heather of Colorado Springs, Colo.; a son, Bradford of Aspen, Colo.; two other brothers, Thomas Jr. of Greenwich, Conn., and Robert of Seattle; a sister, Linda Cabot Black, of Cambridge; and three grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Oct. 26 in Memorial Church in Harvard Yard.
Though Dr. Cabot was born into a life of privilege, his presence defied stereotypes, Ellis said.
“He was one of the most down-to-earth, most practical people I know,” Ellis said. “He had a thoroughly good heart, he had tremendous capacity for empathy, and he had a sentimental streak that was about a mile wide and fathoms deep.”