Remembering Dr. Paul Farmer

Paul Farmer, MD, PhD

The Global Health community was both shocked and saddened by the sudden death of Paul Farmer MD, PhD at the young age of 62.  It was announced on Monday February 21 that he had died in his sleep in Butaro, Rwanda, where he had been for the past several weeks teaching at the University of Global Health Equity, the medical school that he helped develop with the country's former Minister of Health Dr. Agnes Binagwaho.  Born in North Adams, Mass., Paul graduated from Duke University in 1982 and went to Harvard University, where he earned an M.D. and a Ph.D. in anthropology. In 1987, he founded Partners In Health in Haiti with the mission to provide high-quality care to patients from impoverished backgrounds and those living far from health-care facilities. Over the next three decades, Partners In Health expanded to countries across Africa and Latin America, to Russia and to the Navajo Nation in the U.S. 

Paul was a giant in the field infectious diseases, anthropology, human ethics and social medicine.  He was Professor and Chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and co-founder and chief strategist of Partners In Health. He dedicated his life to improving the health, lives, and opportunities of people facing some of the most challenging conditions in the world. He first became well known in his approach to treating people with multiple drug resistant tuberculosis in Peru and later in bringing antiretroviral therapy to the poor in rural Haiti and to those in Russian prisons. In Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains, Paul’s approach to caring for the poor in remote areas of Peru and Haiti is well described, but more importantly, his personal story of dedication to his patients and the community inspired a generation of motivated students to pursue and contribute personally to the field of public health equity for all everywhere. 

Paul was an amazing and inspiring speaker that motivated audiences that health equity was possible in the poorest of regions.  He was frequently recognized for his contributions and advocacy in health equity.  Recipient of numerous awards, Paul’s commitment to health and social justice led him to receive the Public Welfare Medal from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 2018.  He was recipient of Rwanda's National Order of Outstanding Friendship in 2019, given to an individual who has performed outstanding acts in promoting friendship and cooperation between Rwanda and other countries.  In 2020, he won the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture, an honor that goes to an individual who has made major contributions to advancing ideas that shape the world. Just last month, he was awarded the 2022 Inamori Ethics Prize by Case Western Reserve to honor outstanding international ethical leaders whose actions and influence have greatly improved the condition of humankind.

As an anthropologist, Paul had a strong understanding of how health and poverty are interconnected. In a recent NPR interview he stated, "You have to look at what's happening to the patient in front of you and think about ways to address social disparities. If there's food insecurity, then you provide food when you provide care. Or if patients drop out of treatment, you provide transportation to the clinic, or you send community health workers to the patient".  He and his life’s work were the subject of a 2017 documentary, "Bending the Arc."  He authored numerous papers and books, most relevant to his passion of health, human rights, and the consequences of social inequality.  His concerns for infectious diseases as global health threats are illustrated in two of relevant recent books entitled,  “Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues” and "Fevers, Feuds, and Diamonds: Ebola and the Ravages of History," which focused on his experiences and the mistakes he believed were made by his own organization and others in fighting Ebola in West Africa in 2014-2016.

The field of Global Health and Infectious Diseases has truly lost one of the most passionate and dedicated leaders in the field, but he has also provided in his life’s work a unique model of health belief that inequities and poverty must be fully addressed if we are to guarantee health for all.

We wish to express our deepest sympathies to his wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer and their three children Catherine, Elisabeth, and Sebastian, to all of his colleagues in Partners In Health, and to all of his collaborators and patients that he so cared for.

 

Thomas C. Quinn, MD, MSc

Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health

 

Amita Gupta, MD, MHS

Johns Hopkins Division of Infectious Diseases

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June 2022

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