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Global health champion Dr. Paul Farmer has died

Dr. Paul Farmer, photographed in 2017 at a screening of a film about his life's work, <em>Bending the Arc.</em>
Desiree Navarro/Getty Images
Dr. Paul Farmer, photographed in 2017 at a screening of a film about his life's work, Bending the Arc.

Updated Tuesday, Feb. 22, at 10:08 a.m. ET

Dr. Paul Farmer, global health champion, Harvard Medical School professor, anthropologist and co-founder of the nonprofit health organization Partners in Health, has died at age 62. PIH confirmed his death in a tweet on Monday.

According to the tweet, Farmer "unexpectedly passed away today in his sleep while in Rwanda," where he had been teaching for the past few weeks at the university he co-founded. A source close to Farmer said he had been in Rwanda for the past several weeks teaching at the University of Global Health Equity, the medical school that he helped found with the country's former minister of health, Dr. Agnes Binagwaho.

Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners In Health, stands with Mirlande Estenale in front of what used to be her home in the town of Les Cayes, Haiti. He visited Haiti, a country where his group has worked to improve health care, in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
/ Liz Campa/Partners in Health
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Liz Campa/Partners In Health
Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health, stands with Mirlande Estenale in front of what used to be her home in Les Cayes, Haiti. He visited Haiti, a country where his group has worked to improve health care, in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

"Paul Farmer's loss is devastating, but his vision for the world will live on through Partners in Health. Paul taught all those around him the power of accompaniment, love for one another, and solidarity. Our deepest sympathies are with his wife Didi and three children," said PIH CEO Sheila Davis, in a statement.

In addition to starting hospitals in Rwanda and Haiti, Farmer helped bring lifesaving HIV drugs to the people of Haiti in the early 2000s. But those who work with him say his legacy is even more sweeping than that.

"I think it's hard for a lot of people to appreciate just on how many dimensions Paul was an exceptional person. He really forced us to reckon with ... the disparities in health in the world," says Dr. Joe Rhatigan of Harvard Medical School. He first met Farmer in the early 1990s, when they were both medical residents. Farmer, he says, quickly became a mentor.

Even as Farmer was studying for his medical degree, he essentially lived in Haiti amid extremely low-income farmers who didn't even have access to dependable electricity, let alone health care. Farmer was determined to change that.

In 1987, Farmer co-founded Partners in Health in Haiti with the mission to provide high-quality care to patients from impoverished backgrounds and those living far from health care facilities. Over the next three decades, PIH expanded to countries across Africa and Latin America, to Russia and to the Navajo Nation in the United States. Writer Tracy Kidder profiled Farmer in his 2003 book, Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, which later became required reading for many a student and practitioner in global health.

But Dr. Victor Dzau of the National Academy of Medicine says Farmer wasn't just trying to bring basic services. He wanted to bring in the most sophisticated treatments, including what were then cutting-edge HIV/AIDS drugs largely only available in wealthy countries.

Dr. Paul Farmer examines a tuberculosis patient in Monrovia, Liberia.
/ Katherine Kralievits/PIH
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Katherine Kralievits/PIH
Farmer examines a tuberculosis patient in Monrovia, Liberia.

"Paul believed that you can bring best care to anybody by giving to the poor and underserved. There are a lot of people who thought it could not be done," says Dzau.

Farmer came up with creative ways to make it work, enlisting local community health workers to provide care traditionally only offered by doctors. Over the years, Farmer proved enormously successful in spreading the word about his ideas, raising money and essentially starting a whole field of global health equity.

As an anthropologist, Farmer had a strong understanding of how health and poverty are interconnected. "You have to look at what's happening to the patient in front of you and think about ways to address social disparities. If there's food insecurity, then you provide food when you provide care. Or if patients drop out of treatment, you provide transportation to the clinic, or you send community health workers to the patient," he told NPR in 2020 interview.

In 2020, he won the million-dollar Berggruen Prize for philosophy and culture, an honor that goes to an individual who has made major contributions to advancing ideas that shape the world. In 2019, he was also the recipient of Rwanda's National Order of Outstanding Friendship, given to those who have performed outstanding acts in promoting cooperation between Rwanda and other countries.

Even as Farmer rose to international prominence, he remained just as attentive to his peasant farmer neighbors, says his colleague Dr. Joe Rhatigan. They'd often ask him to bring items back for them on trips to the United States.

"Like an electric toothbrush or some little something that you can only get in the States," says Rhatigan. "He would take that stuff just as seriously as he would take writing a letter to a head of state."

During the coronavirus pandemic, Farmer tried to keep a positive outlook for low-income countries. Asked if he was optimistic or pessimistic about the impact of the pandemic on those nations, he told NPR: "Let's all hope for the best. But that's not preparing. Maybe a little cloud of pessimism would spur us to prepare better for a public health catastrophe."

World leaders, global health champions, students, former colleagues and celebrities expressed their condolences on Twitter.

Born in North Adams, Mass., he graduated from Duke University in 1982 and went to Harvard University, where he earned an M.D., as well as a Ph.D. in anthropology.

Dzau of National Academy of Medicine reflects on Farmer's legacy. "There's going to be nobody else like him," he says. "I think Paul died doing what he loved to do most — caring for patients, teaching and extending his love to everyone."

Farmer, who died of "an acute cardiac event while he was sleeping" according to Partners in Health, is survived by his wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer, and their three children.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Malaka Gharib is the deputy editor and digital strategist on NPR's global health and development team. She covers topics such as the refugee crisis, gender equality and women's health. Her work as part of NPR's reporting teams has been recognized with two Gracie Awards: in 2019 for How To Raise A Human, a series on global parenting, and in 2015 for #15Girls, a series that profiled teen girls around the world.