‘I Just Came Across Kindness’: Humanitarian Paul Farmer Dies
Farmer co-founded Partners in Health, a global nonprofit in Boston, and has spent decades providing healthcare to poor communities worldwide, fighting on the front lines to protect low-income communities from deadly pandemics.
The Farmer was a professor at Kolokotron University and Chair of Global Health and Social Medicine at the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School. He served as Chief of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“Paul has dedicated his life to improving people’s health and advocating for health equity and social justice on a global scale,” said George C. Daly, dean of Harvard Medical School, in his keynote. letter to the school. “I am especially shocked by his passing because he was not only an unsurpassed colleague and beloved mentor, but also a close friend. To me, Paul represented the heart and soul of Harvard Medical School.”
He was also chancellor and co-founder of the Global Health Equity University in Rwanda. Before his death, he spent the last few weeks teaching at the university.
“The loss of Paul Farmer is devastating, but his vision of the world will live on through Partners in Health,” said Sheila Davis, CEO of the nonprofit healthcare group. “Paul taught everyone around him the power of accompaniment, love for each other, and solidarity. We sincerely sympathize with his family.”
The Farmer was born in North Adams, Massachusetts, and raised in Florida with his parents and five siblings. He attended Duke University on a Benjamin N. Duke Scholarship and received his medical degree in 1988 and then his Ph.D. in 1990 from Harvard University.
His humanitarian work began when he was a college student who volunteered for Haiti in 1983, working with disadvantaged farmers. In 1987, he co-founded Partners in Health with the goal of helping patients in poor parts of the world.
Under Farmer’s leadership, the nonprofit has handled major public health crises: the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, drug-resistant tuberculosis in Peru and elsewhere, and the Ebola outbreak that swept West Africa.
Farmer documented his experience of treating Ebola patients in Africa in 2014-2015 in a book called Fever, Strife, and Diamonds: Ebola and the Devastating Consequences of History.
He wrote that by the time he arrived, “western Sierra Leone was the epicenter of the epidemic, and Upper West Africa was just about the worst place in the world for the critically ill or injured.”
One of his greatest qualities was his ability to connect with patients — to treat them “not as someone who is suffering, but as a buddy to joke with,” said Pardis Sabeti, MD, a geneticist at Harvard University. Who also spent time in Africa and famously sequenced samples of the Ebola virus genome.
What brought Sabeti and Farmer closer was their love of Sierra Leone, as well as their grief over the loss of a close Ebola colleague: Humarr Khan, who was one of the area’s leading infectious disease experts.
Sabeti first met Farmer many years ago when she was a Harvard medical student in her first year when she enrolled in one of his courses. She said the students introduced themselves one after the other, each one sincerely talking about what Farmer’s work meant to them.
Farmer and Sabeti had just texted on Saturday, and the two were “lounging around in their usual way and making plans to make the world a better place like we’ve always done.”
Sabeti said Farmer was funny, naughty, and, above all, just the way one would expect him to meet.
“It’s a cliché, but the energy boost you get from just being in his presence is almost otherworldly,” she said. “It’s not even otherworldly in the sense of ‘I just stumbled upon greatness. It’s more like, “I just stumbled upon kindness.”
Joseph Ratigan, MD, deputy chief of global health equity at Brigham, said his friend of 30 years was “a doctor, smart and erudite, but also very compassionate.”
Ratigan said they were together in Rwanda two weeks ago when Farmer hosted a game-watching party for his football-loving Liverpool patient: a 21-year-old man dying of metastatic bone cancer. The party was attended by family, friends, and a small cake that Farmer asked the chef to make for the occasion.
“It was Paul. He did things like that for patients all the time,” Ratigan said. “Just a beautiful little thing for someone who was very sick.”
The Farmer’s work has been widely circulated in publications, including Bulletin of the World Health Organization, Lancet, ThatNew England Journal of Medicine, Clinical infectious diseases, as well as Social sciences and medicine.
He has been awarded the 2020 Berggruen Prize in Philosophy and Culture, the Margaret Mead Award from the American Anthropological Association, the American Medical Association Award for Distinguished International Physician (Nathan Davis), and, along with his colleagues at Partners in Health, the Hilton Humanitarian Award.
He is survived by his wife Didi Bertrand Farmer, and three children.