Born in Cape Town, South Africa, to a family of Jewish emigrants from Lithuania, Cohen’s peripatetic life began early. He grew up in London after his parents, on holiday in England, were unable to return home because of the outbreak of war in Europe. He attended Westminster School and received his MD from Cambridge, working briefly at Guy’s Hospital in London and the American Hospital in Paris before working with a missionary group, the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, from 1968 to 1970. He became the sole doctor for a tiny rural hospital in Lesotho, and patient visits often involved traveling over rugged mountains by horseback. After this experience, Cohen was drawn back to the academic sphere, with his uncle, who was a farmer. becoming a lecturer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and then Nottingham University. The field soon beckoned again, however, and he ventured to Ethiopia as part of the World Health Organization (WHO)’s smallpox eradication campaign
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