Dr. Paul Farmer, the titan of global public health who died Monday in Rwanda, leaves more than just a legacy of good deeds and personal leadership. It would not be an overstatement to say that Farmer, who was 62, changed the way the world, and in particular the medical profession, thinks about the health of the globe’s poorest and most vulnerable.
Farmer’s death, from an acute cardiac event, was announced by Partners in Health, the Boston-based international nonprofit he cofounded in Haiti in the 1990s. Under his leadership, the group saved millions of lives by delivering health care in the world’s poorest regions and by helping to build high-quality hospitals in underprivileged countries like Haiti and Sierra Leone.
They were not, of course, the first doctors who sought to help disadvantaged people and countries. But Farmer and Partners in Health created a new community-based model to fight health care inequities globally. Farmer believed in practicing “social medicine” — that is, the idea that one must address the underlying socioeconomic factors behind a patient and their diseases.
Farmer reached prominence after the nonfiction book “Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World” was published in 2003. Its Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Tracy Kidder, followed Farmer while he treated prisoners and the poor in places such as Haiti, Moscow, and Paris. “His dream, he once told me, was to start a movement that would refuse to accept, and would strive to repair, the grotesque health inequities among and within the countries of the world,” Kidder wrote in an essay after Farmer’s passing.
Boston was the nucleus of Farmer’s life work. Partners in Health was founded with a $1 million donation from developer and philanthropist Tom White, whose construction firm built the Park Plaza Hotel, Foxboro Stadium, and part of Boston’s subway system, among many other Boston landmarks.
The organization has grown into a worldwide endeavor, with a presence in a dozen countries, including Peru, Russia, and Malawi. Its success is a testament to the tremendous global impact that a man with a grand vision, unrelenting drive, and the right support can make.
Where others saw insurmountable obstacles — civil conflict, remote villages, lack of funding, corrupt institutions and governments — Farmer found a way to deliver care in a sustainable way. Farmer and Partners in Health have been behind, directly and indirectly, scores of global public health efforts, like campaigns against tuberculosis and AIDS. The group has worked locally, too. When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit Massachusetts in 2020, Farmer and Partners in Health brought the expertise gained when they helped fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to a contact tracing initiative to combat the spread of the coronavirus. The nonprofit coordinated the state’s contact tracing initiative, which was responsible for making roughly 2.7 million calls to residents.
Social injustice and inequalities indeed have a cure, and Farmer’s humanitarian career embodies it. He believed that every human being — no matter how poor or disenfranchised — deserves access to high-quality health care. And by putting that belief into action, he inspired thousands of people — former patients, mentees, students — to follow in his footsteps.
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