BUTARO, Rwanda — Dr. Paul Farmer, a Catholic physician who helped found a network of clinics serving the rural poor in Haiti and Rwanda, died in his sleep Feb. 21 on the grounds of a clinic he had founded in Butaro. He was 62.
Farmer graduated from Duke University with a degree in medical anthropology. In 1987, even before he graduated from medical school at Harvard University, he co-founded and served as chief strategist for Partners In Health, which over the years established 16 clinics in Haiti with 7,000 employees.
In addition to Rwanda, Partners In Health later expanded to Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mexico, Peru, Russia, Sierra Leone, and the Navajo Nation in the United States.
Beyond building an ever-expanding network of clinics serving the rural poor in some of the world’s poorest countries, Farmer also was an acclaimed infectious diseases doctor with an endowed chair at Harvard Medical School.
Farmer was a practitioner of “social medicine,” contending that illness has social roots and must be addressed through social structures. He said there was no point in treating patients for diseases only to send them back into the desperate circumstances that contributed to their illness in the first place.
He also was a proponent of liberation theology, which emphasizes the liberation of the oppressed, engaging in socioeconomic analyses, with social concern for the poor and political liberation for oppressed peoples, or by addressing other forms of inequality, such as race or caste.
One of Farmer’s 12 books was “In the Company of the Poor: Conversations Between Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez,” the Peruvian Dominican priest often regarded as the father of liberation theology.
But it was a book not written by Farmer himself that introduced him on the world stage, but a biography written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder in 2003: “Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World.”
Farmer, who spent his boyhood in Massachusetts, moved with his parents and five siblings to Florida after his father, a high school teacher, bought an old bus and retrofitted it with bunks. It was while picking oranges in Florida that young Paul had his first encounter with Haitians.
In a 1991 article in America magazine, Farmer critiqued the history of U.S. military involvement in Haiti.
U.S. occupation “was felt in every aspect and institution of Haitian society,” he wrote. “The once proud army was undone and remade by the Marines. The country’s finances were also taken over by the Americans, who sponsored a series of centralizing puppet governments.”
“Also grating was the racism of many Marines, who disdained equally the elite and the poor. At first, well-to-do Haitians responded by glorifying all that was French and refined, and opposing it to all that was American and vulgar. It was during the occupation, for example, that French was declared the ‘official language’ of Haiti.”
As a sign of how deeply Farmer kept in touch with his patients after he had treated them, he was godfather to more than 100 children, most of them in Haiti, Partners In Health board director Laurie Nuell told The New York Times.
The weekend before he died, Farmer sent Nuell a photo of a colorful bouquet of flowers he had put together for one of his terminally ill patients in Rwanda. “Not my best work,” Farmer said in the accompanying text.
In a long string of honors that began in 1993 with a MacArthur “genius grant,” Farmer received Villanova University’s Mendel Medal in 2006, an honorary doctorate from Georgetown University in 2011, and the Catholic Theological Union’s “Blessed Are the Peacemakers” Award in 2015.
Farmer, who also was chief of the division of global health equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, is survived by his wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer, and their three children.
In separate New York Times interviews, two of the United States’ most visible public health figures openly grieved Farmer’s death.
“There are so many people that are alive because of that man,” said Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adding that she wanted to compose herself before speaking further.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s top medical adviser, broke down in tears.
“When you talk about iconic giants in the field of public health, he stands pretty much among a very, very short list of people,” said Fauci, who first met Farmer when the latter was a medical student. He added, “He called me his mentor, but in reality he was more of a mentor to me.”