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Rodney M. Coe: Saint Louis University Sociologist Promoted Community Service For Physicians

Rodney Michael Coe
Provided by Saint Louis University

Rodney Coe, a sociologist who led Saint Louis University’s Department of Family and Community Medicine for a decade, wanted medical students to be more than healers with a great bedside manner. He wanted them to know and understand the communities they would be serving. A medical school program that bears his name made his hope a reality.

“He was very proud of that,” said his wife, Elaine Coe.

The 1995 medical school graduating class included the first cohort of students who completed the Rodney M. Coe Distinction in Community Service program. The four-year program helps students remain anchored to the ideal of compassionate care that brought most of them to medicine.

“He sent students out to various community centers to interact with people where health care was (poor),” his wife said. “That was a major, major focus.”

Some of the students currently enrolled in the program visited Mr. Coe during his recent stay at Saint Louis University Hospital, where he died on Friday (March 14), following a long illness. He was 80.

A memorial service will be Thursday at First Congregational Church in Webster Groves, where Mr. Coe had lived for more than 50 years.

Sociology meets medicine

Mr. Coe came to St. Louis to pursue his Ph.D. in sociology at Washington University. After graduating in 1962, he quickly secured a faculty position with his alma mater. He remained there until an upheaval arose in the university’s sociology department, apparently over some faculty investigations of such issues as economic and social power inequities in St. Louis and a study of homosexual activity in public restrooms.

The rift became so great that two faculty members, Laud Humphreys and Alvin Gouldner, came to blows. Gouldner, the professor who allegedly started the fight, was exonerated by the administration, then led by Chancellor Thomas H. Eliot. That did not sit well with most of the sociology faculty, including Mr. Coe. He was part of a two-year mass exodus that decimated the sociology department between 1969 and 1971. Twenty years later, Washington University’s sociology department ceased to exist.

Mr. Coe, whose specialty was medical sociology, spent the last 29 years of his career on the faculty of Saint Louis University School of Medicine. In 1989, he became chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine, where he was instrumental in developing residencies in family medicine, occupational medicine and public health. He retired in 1999.

Despite growing up very middle class, Mr. Coe developed a broad view of the world. He did research into the distribution of medical care – who got it and who did not – and how it could be better delivered.

“Rod played a major role in the understanding of the aging process, and he played a key role in developing gerontology programs,” said John E. Morley, M.D., director of the division of geriatric medicine at Saint Louis University. The two met while doing geriatric research at the Veterans Administration Medical Center nearly 30 years ago and became writing partners on issues of aging. 

In the 1970s, Mr. Coe led projects that helped remove lead paint from housing, protecting children in the St. Louis area from lead poisoning.

His 1990 study linked the isolation of older people to the costly overuse of the emergency room.

cover of book on cardiovascular disease
Credit Provided by Saint Louis University
Mr. Coe wrote more than 20 books.

''We measured how older people fit into networks of families and of friends,'' Coe told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Sometimes they didn’t. He called them “the abandoned” and found that they used the emergency room from seven to 30 times more often than people with networks of family or friends.

He advocated for single-payer health insurance long before it became a household phrase, telling the Post-Dispatch in 1997, "There seems to be a singular lack of cooperation…” That same year, he led a joint venture between Saint Louis University’s medical school and St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Belleville to train resident physicians in family practice.

“Sociology of Medicine,” a textbook published in 1970 and later translated into Spanish, and “Community Medicine: Some New Perspectives,” which came out in 1978, were among 22 books Mr. Coe authored, co-authored or edited. Much of his writing focused on medical care for older people, including “Endocrine Function and Aging,” which originally published in 1990, and was reissued in paperback in 2011. In 1997, he co-edited “Cardiovascular Disease in Older People” with Dr. Morley and Fran E. Kaiser, M.D. He contributed more than 100 papers to scientific journals.

I’ve been everywhere

Rodney Michael Coe was born Nov. 10, 1933, in Marquette, Mich., but grew up mostly in Oskaloosa, a name made famous by Johnny Cash in the song, “I’ve Been Everywhere.” His family moved to the small, coal-mining city in Iowa when his father, Roy Coe, a manager with the S.S. Kresge Co. (now Kmart), was transferred there. His mother, Renee Coe, was a telephone operator for AT&T.

Mr. Coe was active in Army ROTC at Iowa State University, where he met and married the former Elaine Elwell. After graduating, he spent two years on active duty at Fort Riley, Kans. Upon discharge, he attended Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where he earned a master’s degree. While working on his doctorate at Washington University, he was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

At Iowa State, he was on the swim team, and he continued to be a daily swimmer. He golfed and gardened and traveled, once noting that “it’s a good year anytime I travel outside the country.” He had done so often since 1969, when he and his family, which now included four children, spent eight months in Santiago, Chile. He was on the University of Chile United Nations Latin American faculty for social sciences. 

He was a “double-Palm” Eagle Scout and was actively involved with Meals on Wheels and First Congregational Church of Webster Groves. His board service included the Institute for Family Medicine. His passion for opera, for which no one knew the origins, was boundless and led to his generous support of many cultural and philanthropic organizations.

“Rod was one of the nicest, kindest people I ever met,” said Dr. Morley. “He cared about human beings and spent his lifetime trying to help people.”

Mr. Coe was preceded in death by his parents and only sibling, younger sister Nancy Randell, who died in a private plane crash with her husband, Conrad “Wes” Randell, in 2006.

In addition to his wife of 59 years, Mr. Coe is survived by his children, Kevin (Margie) Coe, of Hanover, Penn., Curtis (Dee) Coe, of Beeston, England, Andrea (William) Welnick, of St. Louis, and Douglas (Pam) Coe, of Leawood, Kans.; seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

A memorial service for Mr. Coe will be at 2 p.m., Thursday, March 20, at First Congregational Church of Webster Groves, 10 West Lockwood, Webster Groves, Mo. 63119.

Memorial gifts may be sent to First Congregational Church of Webster Groves, or Opera Theatre of St. Louis, 210 Hazel Avenue, St. Louis, Mo. 63119.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.