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Brigham and Women’s Hospital mourns the loss of Paul Farmer, MD, PhD, chief of the Division of Global Health Equity, and a pioneer in the field of global health. A world-renowned global health physician and advocate, infectious disease specialist, medical anthropologist, humanitarian and mentor, Dr. Farmer was a champion of improving health care and preventing and treating diseases in under-resourced countries and communities. He died unexpectedly on Feb. 21 at the age of 62.
“Paul was a true giant among us, establishing the field of global health equity. He tirelessly worked his entire career to effect change for better health for all members of society,” shared Department of Medicine Chair Joseph Loscalzo, MD, PhD. “His work benefited in unmeasurable but extraordinary ways the lives of many individuals throughout the world previously without access to modern healthcare. His impact on social justice in global health will be long-lasting as his many trainees continue his extraordinary work internationally.”
Dr. Farmer was co-founder and chief strategist of Partners In Health (PIH) and the Kolokotrones University Professor and chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He served as the United Nations Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Community-based Medicine and Lessons from Haiti.
Born in North Adams, Massachusetts, Dr. Farmer was raised in Florida with his parents and five siblings. He received his bachelor’s degree from Duke University and his MD and PhD from Harvard University.
In 1983, Dr. Farmer traveled to Haiti as an undergraduate volunteer. That’s where Nadia Raymond, PhD(c), MSN/MHA, RN, nursing director of Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center, first met “Polo,” as she called him. Dr. Farmer lived with her family in Haiti at the time. Raymond recalled watching as he “quickly found his true passion in serving others.”
In Haiti, Dr. Farmer served for 10 years as medical director of L’Hôpital Bon Sauveur Cange, a non-profit hospital that provides treatment for people who have little to no resources, including health insurance. In 1987, Dr. Farmer co-founded PIH, which began in Haiti’s rural Central Plateau and now serves millions of patients in need across 12 countries. The organization, in Dr. Farmer’s words, aims to do three things: “directly serve those shut out of modern medicine, train others to do so, and generate new knowledge about how to do it better.”
Dr. Farmer came to the Brigham as an internal medicine resident in 1991.
“From the day I met him, we could all tell that Paul was sui generis—a one-of-a-kind man who, through his wisdom, vision, kindness and courage, had a singularly profound influence on his students, colleagues, patients and the field of global health equity,” said Joel Thorp Katz, MD, director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program, vice chair for education, Marshall A. Wolf Distinguished Chair in Medical Education. “He set and lived up to exceptionally high standards even during exhausting periods of training, in dire work circumstances and beyond, with boundless energy and a reassuring smile at the ready.”
Katz recalled Dr. Farmer’s dedication to his patients and colleagues. “Paul’s genuine curiosity made me—and everyone else, especially his patients—feel special, heard and attended to,” Katz said. “He had an encyclopedic memory for details of people’s lives regardless of their role, circumstances or station in life, and he would turn over every proverbial rock to ensure that his patients and colleagues received the absolute best care and sincerest attention and support possible. While heartbroken, I am so grateful for the lessons he taught me about being a doctor and friend.”
After his residency, Dr. Farmer completed a fellowship in the Combined Longwood Infectious Disease Program in 1996 and later became chief of the Division of Global Health Equity in 2009. He helped found the country’s first residency in medicine and global health equity at the Brigham, enabling the next generations of physicians to train in the clinical, social and administrative factors that affect health care in poor settings
Under his leadership, PIH has delivered care to people in underprivileged countries all over the world, responded to the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010 and built hospitals in countries including Haiti and Sierra Leone.
“I had the privilege to be in Rwanda with him about a week ago, and it was so great to see him doing the things he loved: teaching medical students on the wards and caring for patients,” said Joe Rhatigan, MD, associate chief of the Division of Global Health Equity. “Words are inadequate to describe this loss.”
Upon the announcement of Dr. Farmer’s death, social media was flooded with tributes from those he cared for, taught, worked alongside and inspired.
“We were all so fortunate to have had Paul in our lives, although far too short,” wrote Regan Marsh, MD, MPH, attending physician in the Department of Emergency Medicine. “He inspired so many with his vision for a more just and equitable world for all.”
“Paul was our compass, on a dual mission to promote health and equity,” shared Rebecca Weintraub, MD, associate physician in the Division of Global Health Equity. “Paul created proximity to listen and heal. I miss his warmth and friendship. May we all do justice to his memory.”
Authoring more than 200 scientific papers and multiple books, Dr. Farmer wrote extensively about health, human rights and the consequences of social inequality. He received numerous honors throughout his career, including the Bronislaw Malinowski Award, the Margaret Mead Award from the American Anthropological Association, the Outstanding International Physician (Nathan Davis) Award from the American Medical Association, a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and, with his PIH colleagues, the Hilton Humanitarian Prize. Dr. Farmer was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, from which he was the recipient of the 2018 Public Welfare Medal.
In addition to his tremendous accomplishments, he is remembered for his optimism, warmth, sense of humor, authenticity and tenacity.
“Despite incredible odds against the poor and periods of challenge as the world caught up with his vision, Paul did not tolerate pessimism. He had a gift to see the good in everyone and the possibilities for societal responses to seemingly intractable dilemmas, such as multidrug-resistant tuberculosis devastating resource-poor communities,” said Katz.
Raymond added, “Polo remained authentic and remembered everyone’s name; his patients adored him. Polo’s legacy lives on in all of us; it is carried forth every time we declare that health is a human right.”
Dr. Farmer is survived by his wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer, and their three children, Sebastian, Elizabeth and Catherine.
Information about a Brigham memorial service is forthcoming.