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Dr. Paul Farmer, public health luminary and co-founder of Partners in Health, dies at 62, in Rwanda

Dr. Paul Farmer joined Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker during an update on the coronavirus pandemic on April 3, 2020.Nicolaus Czarnecki/Pool

Dr. Paul Farmer, a towering figure in global public health who spent years working to bring quality health care to the most impoverished parts of the planet, died Monday in Rwanda. He was 62.

Farmer’s death was announced in a statement by Partners in Health, the international non-profit organization that he co-founded, which said the acclaimed infectious disease doctor “unexpectedly” died in his sleep.

Dr. Sheila Davis, chief executive of Partners in Health, said in an interview that he apparently suffered a sudden cardiac event while sleeping.

Farmer was also an anthropologist, author of a dozen books, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and chief of the division of global health equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

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Colleagues at Harvard said Farmer had been working and teaching at Rwanda’s University of Global Health Equity, which he co-founded. They said they had no additional information about the cause of his death.

“Paul Farmer’s loss is devastating, but his vision for the world will live on through Partners in Health,” Dr. Sheila Davis, the group’s chief executive, said in a statement. “Paul taught all those around him the power of accompaniment, love for one another, and solidarity.”

The Farmer family in an Easter photo in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2008. From left: Elizabeth, Catherine, Didi Bertrand, Sebastian and Farmer. courtesy Paul Farmer family/The Boston Globe

Farmer helped found Partners in Health in 1987, with the goal of expanding access to health care to some of the world’s most under-served areas. On its website, the organization calls itself “a social justice organization that responds to the moral imperative to provide high-quality health care globally to those who need it most.”

Partners in Health now operates in nearly a dozen locations in regions such as Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America, according to its website. Last year, the group helped provide nearly 3 million outpatient visits in supported clinics, more than 2 million women’s health checkups and 2 million home visits conducted by community health workers, according to its website.

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The program has particularly strong ties to Haiti, helping the impoverished island nation through a devastating earthquake in 2010. With 5,300 local doctors, nurses, and community health workers, it is the largest nonprofit health care provider in the country, according to the organization.

In an e-mail sent to Farmer’s colleagues, George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School, said he was “heartbroken” to learn of his friend and mentor’s death.

“Paul passed quietly in his sleep, pursuing to his last day his mission of bringing exceptional medical care to regions of the globe in greatest need,” he wrote.

He described Farmer as a “compassionate physician and infectious disease specialist, a brilliant and influential medical anthropologist, and among the greatest humanitarians of our time — perhaps all time.”

Farmer’s “life’s work and teaching have been an inspiration to countless colleagues and trainees who will carry on his legacy,” he said.

In 2020, Farmer was awarded the prestigious $1 million Berggruen Prize for Philosophy & Culture. At the time, Kwame Anthony Appiah, chairman of the Berggruen Prize jury and professor of philosophy and law at New York University noted that Farmer had transformed “how we think about infectious diseases, social inequality, and caring for others while standing in solidarity with them.”

“He has reshaped our understanding not just of what it means to be sick or healthy, but also of what it means to treat health as a human right and the ethical and political obligations that follow,” Appiah said in a statement at the time.

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Paul Farmer checked out a child recovering at Partners in Health/ Inshuti Mu Buzima's Rwinkwavu Hospital in Rwanda in 2008.Eric Neudel for The Boston Globe/The Boston Globe

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Farmer and his colleagues at Partners in Health developed the Commonwealth’s COVID-19 contact tracing protocol.

Farmer leaves behind an acclaimed legacy, both in Boston’s medical community and the wider world of global public health care. Just moments after the organization announced his death Monday, reaction began pouring in.

Paul Farmer and Bill Clinton announced an HIV/AIDS initiative through the former president's foundation in New York City in 2005. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“Paul was one of the most extraordinary people we have ever known,” wrote former president Bill Clinton, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and daughter Chelsea Clinton in a statement. “His pioneering work with Partners In Health touched millions of lives, advanced global health equity, and fundamentally changed the way health care is delivered in the most impoverished places on Earth. He was brilliant, passionate, kind, and humble. He saw every day as a new opportunity to teach, learn, give, and serve — and it was impossible to spend any amount of time with him and not feel the same.”

In a statement posted on Twitter, Governor Charlie Baker called Farmer a “living legend.”

He said the doctor “made a life out of helping people in many countries address some of the world’s most difficult and dangerous public health issues.”

He described Partners in Health as an organization that has “made the world a better place in countless ways.”

“I will always be grateful for the work they did here in MA during some of the worst days of the pandemic,” Baker said.

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Rochelle Walensky, a former colleague at Harvard who now serves as director of the Centers for Disease Control, said, too, was devastated by the news of Farmer’s death.

She called him “an unparalleled visionary for global public health.”

“Countless people are alive because of his investment in public health infrastructure, in direct care delivery, and in selflessly training others to do the same,” she wrote on Twitter. “His reach and impact will be felt for generations to come.”

Another former colleague, the author and surgeon Atul Gawande, wrote on Twitter that he felt “gutted” by the news, calling Farmer a “friend to so many, champion for billions, inspiration to all.”

Samantha Power, administrator of the US Agency for International Development and former US ambassador to the United Nations, also called the news “devastating.”

“Paul Farmer gave everything — everything — to others. He saw the worst, and yet did all he could to bring out the best in everyone he encountered. Indefatigable, mischievous, generous, brilliant, soulful, skeptical, idealistic, beloved. A giant.”

Farmer leaves his wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer, a researcher for Partners in Health, and their three children, Elizabeth, Catherine and Sebastian.

Bryan Marquard, Jessica Bartlett, Kay Lazar, and Felice Freyer of the Globe staff and Correspondent Andrew Brinker contributed to this report.


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him @davabel.