Paul Farmer, A Leader for Health Equity


The world is mourning the tragic death of Paul Farmer, who died on February 21 at age 62. Dr. Farmer was a transformative figure in medicine and public health. A physician and anthropologist, he was a pioneer in the field of social medicine, recognizing that illness often has social roots and effective treatment requires addressing social structures as well as medical care. He put those ideas into practice as one of the co-founders of Partners In Health, inspiring countless others to reconsider how we deliver health services and how we construct frameworks for development assistance.

Completing his undergraduate degree at Duke and his medical and PhD degrees (anthropology) at Harvard, his work in a village in Haiti was the source of inspiration for his life’s work. Volunteering at a hospital in Cange, on Haiti’s central plateau, opened his eyes to some of the social barriers to health care – for example, requiring patients to pay in advance for their care, which meant, in Dr. Farmer’s words, “that the hospital is not for the poor.” While still a Harvard student, he opened a community-based clinic in Cange, and often went to people’s homes to provide care. In 1987, he co-founded Partners In Health, a nongovernmental organization whose mission is “to bring the benefits of modern medical science to those most in need of them and to serve as an antidote to despair.” Today, Partners In Health collaborates with national governments in 12 countries, including Haiti and Rwanda, where Dr. Farmer was most recently working. In Rwanda, he co-founded The University of Global Health Equity, Rwanda, dedicated to changing the way healthcare is delivered.

Dr. Farmer’s career – shaped by his focus on the social context of health, reliance on community health leaders, and finding ways to work in “medical deserts” – offers many valuable lessons for CMB Equity Initiative Fellows. Our 2016 Fellows were fortunate to meet with Dr. Farmer during their Global Learning experience in Cambridge, Mass. In a dinner conversation with Fellows, both his continuing passion for his work and his interest in engaging with young leaders were evident. Le Nhan Phuong, our Equity Initiative executive director, recalled that evening: “My own impression of Dr. Farmer, in addition to his great intellect, humanity, and dedication for health equity, was a very generous and kind human being. I remembered leaving the dinner feeling very inspired for having met the man.”

Dr. Farmer’s death is a great loss to the clinical and public health communities throughout the world. His life will continue to inspire people for generations to come.

Barbara J. Stoll, MD
President, China Medical Board

To read more about Dr. Farmer’s remarkable life and career, click here for the New York Times obituary and click here for a 2018 interview with The Harvard Gazette.