Renowned infectious disease specialist, humanitarian, and healthcare champion for many of the world’s most vulnerable patient populations, Paul Edward Farmer, MD, died suddenly in his sleep from an acute cardiac event on February 21 in Rwanda, where he had been teaching. Hey what 62.
Farmer cofounded the Boston-based global nonprofit Partners In Health and spent decades providing healthcare to impoverished communities worldwide, fighting on the frontline to protect underserved communities against deadly pandemics.
Farmer was the Kolokotrones University Professor and chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School (HMS) in Boston, Massachusetts. He served as chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
“Paul dedicated his life to improving human health and advocating for health equity and social justice on a global scale,” said HMS Dean George Q. Daley in a letter to the HMS community. “I am particularly shaken by his passing because he was not only a consummate colleague and a beloved mentor, but a close friend. To me, Paul represented the heart and soul of Harvard Medical School.”
He was also chancellor and cofounder of the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda. Before his death, he spent several weeks teaching at the university.
“Paul Farmer’s loss is devastating, but his vision for the world will live on through Partners In Health,” said Partners In Health CEO Sheila Davis in a statement. “Paul taught all those around him the power of accompaniment, love for one another, and solidarity. Our deepest sympathies are with his family.”
Farmer was born in North Adams, Massachusetts, and grew up 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, followed by his PhD in 1990 from Harvard University.
His humanitarian work began when he was a college student volunteering in Haiti in 1983 working with dispossessed farmers. In 1987, he cofounded Partners In Health with the goal of helping patients in poverty-stricken corners of the world.
Under Farmer’s leadership, the nonprofit tackled major public health crises: Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, drug-resistant tuberculosis in Peru and other countries, and an Ebola outbreak that tore through West Africa.
Farmer documented his 2014-2015 experience treating Africa’s Ebola patients in a book called Fevers, Feuds, and Diamonds: Ebola and the Ravages of History.
He wrote that by the time he arrived, “western Sierra Leone was ground zero of the epidemic, and Upper West Africa was just about the worst place in the world to be critically ill or injured.”
One of his greatest qualities was his ability to connect with patients — to treat them “not like ones who suffered, but like a pal you’d joke with,” said Pardis Sabeti, MD, PhD, a Harvard University geneticist who also spent time in Africa and famously sequenced samples of the Ebola virus’ genome.
Sabeti and Farmer bonded over their love for Sierra Leone, and their grief over losing a close colleague to Ebola, Sheik Humarr Khan, who was one of the area’s leading infectious disease experts.
Sabeti first met Farmer years earlier as a first-year Harvard medical student when she enrolled in one of his courses. She said students introduced themselves, one by one, each veering into heartfelt testimonies about what Farmer’s work had meant to them.
Farmer and Sabeti were just texting on Saturday, and the two were “goofing around in our usual way, and scheming about how to make the world better, as we always did.”
Farmer was funny, mischievous, and above all, exactly what you would expect upon meeting him, Sabeti said.
“It’s cliché, but the energetic kick you get from just being in his presence, it’s almost otherworldly,” she said. “It’s not even otherworldly in the sense of, ‘I just came across — greatness.’ It’s more, ‘I just came across kindness.'”
Farmer’s work has been widely distributed in publications including Bulletin of the World Health Organization, The Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, Clinical Infectious Diseases, and Social Science & Medicine.
He was awarded the 2020 Berggruen Prize for Philosophy & Culture, the Margaret Mead Award from the American Anthropological Association, the American Medical Association’s Outstanding International Physician (Nathan Davis) Award, and, with his Partners In Health colleagues, the Hilton Humanitarian Prize.
He is survived by his wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer, and their three children.
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