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James Koch

James P. Koch, 79

By Bryan Marquard, Globe Staff | February 18, 2007

A poster hanging in a lab where James P. Koch conducted research carried an admonition that took hold in his creative mind as he glanced at it each day.

"He told the story very often himself," said his wife, Harriet. "Somebody had put the poster up on the door of their lab. It said, 'No matter what your problem, you won't be able to solve it until you solve the population problem.' He saw it and it felt so true to him that he never forgot it."

Turning from the study of biological chemistry to gynecology, he devoted the rest of his career to helping control population growth and inventing better approaches to women's reproductive health care.

Dr. Koch, whose work produced a cervical cap for contraception, died Tuesday in his Brookline home. He was 79 and his health had failed after a severe case of Lyme disease and a series of small strokes.

A member for many years of the medical advisory committee for the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, Dr. Koch had been on the front lines of the reproductive rights debate, sometimes facing protests and threats.

"He was one of the pioneer doctors willing to perform abortions at a time when it was not readily available, even when it was legal," said his daughter Pamela, of Menlo Park, Calif. "There was a lot of courage and commitment involved in making that right for women really possible. You had to be courageous and willing to have people picket you."

James Paine Koch was born in St. Paul. He graduated from St. Paul Academy, received a bachelor of arts from Harvard College in 1951, and a medical degree from Tufts University School of Medicine in 1956.

For most of the next 16 years, Dr. Koch was a researcher in biological chemistry at hospitals in Boston and at Harvard Medical School.

In the early 1970s, he switched his focus to gynecology and a few years later began developing a cervical cap.

He patented the birth control device and in the process became perhaps the first physician in New England to prescribe that form of contraception.

A few years ago, Dr. Koch and his wife joined daughters and granddaughters in Washington, D.C., for a reproductive rights march.

"I think it was a pretty powerful experience for him to be there," said his daughter, who introduced him to other doctors participating in the event.

"They kind of looked at him and said, 'Wow' -- not realizing that it was such an old fight, and yet still a fight," she said.

While Dr. Koch's greatest impact was in the contraception field, his imagination roamed wide.

"In his early years, he patented a lamp and he patented bookends," his wife said. "He was always tinkering."

She met Dr. Koch when he was an undergraduate at Harvard. Away from work -- and often away from their brood -- the couple went snorkeling and scuba diving throughout the Caribbean before settling on the island of Bonaire, off Venezuela, as their destination of choice.

"We went to the Bahamas, we went to Belize, we went to Mexico -- we went to five or six different places," his wife said. "And then we finally got to Bonaire and it was just so wonderful. The snorkeling and diving was just so accessible. You didn't have to go on a boat with 30 other people, you can go right off shore. We went down there for almost 25 years."

A devotee of music, Dr. Koch kept radios in nearly every room he frequented and was on a first-name basis with the DJs at WHRB, the undergraduate radio station at Harvard.

And he kept a harmonica for idle moments.

"On a plane, in a restaurant, he'd pull out a harmonica," his daughter said.

From folk to classical, bluegrass, blues, and gospel, Dr. Koch's musical passions knew few bounds.

"Zydeco? No problem," his daughter said. "Go to a folk festival out in Western Massachusetts? He's there."

Dr. Koch's expansive tastes carried over into fields beyond medicine, too, which meant "he was never bored," his wife said. "He always had a clear sense of purpose. He was always interested in so many things, even things he didn't have time for. He always said, 'I wish I had another life -- I wish I was a biologist. . . . I wish I had another life -- I'd like to be an astronomer.' "

In addition to his wife and daughter, Dr. Koch leaves four other daughters, Amelia of Newton, Sandra Koch McFarren of Carson City, Nev., Johanna of Incline Village, Nev., and Lousia of Silver Spring, Md.; a sister, Mary Adams Danos of Arlington, Va.; a brother, Frederick, of Brattleboro; and nine grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. today in First Parish Unitarian Church of Brookline.

Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.