A Man Who Would Cure the World

"A Healing Force in Haiti," Duke Magazine, January-February 1995
January 31, 2004

 

 

In 1995, Paul Farmer '82, Harvard professor, anthropologist, and renowned infectious-diseases specialist, told Duke Magazine that what concerns him most "are the Haitian poor. I work for them." Indeed, through a charity he helped establish called Partners in Health, Farmer brought a thriving public-health system to Cange, Haiti: vaccines to children, homes to the homeless, treatment to the ill, and sanitation and water systems to a disease-ridden wasteland. Later, he received a MacArthur "genius" grant for his compassionate work.

But since that 1995 interview, Farmer's concerns--and, with them, his ambitions--have stretched beyond Haiti's borders to Peru, Cuba, and Russia, and, to our good fortune, into the pages of a new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder. Mountains Beyond Mountains is the story not of a journey--journeys end--but of one man's decree that no one, no matter how poor, will go untreated; doctors will be trained; drug prices will be lowered; policies will be changed; every mountain will be climbed. "Dr.

Farmer does not have anywhere near the name recognition of, say, Mother Theresa," wrote a New York Times reviewer, "but if any one person can be given credit for transforming the medical establishment's thinking about health care for the destitute, it is Paul Farmer."

--Balding and bespectacled, "Farmer had a high waist and long thin arms and his nose came almost to a point," writes Kidder. He compares him to a soldier in Haiti, whom Farmer confronted. "I remember thinking that Captain Carroll and Dr. Farmer made a mismatched pair, and that Farmer suffered in the com-parison.... And for all of that he struck me as bold, indeed downright cocky."

A pre-med and anthropology major at Duke, Farmer won a Benenson Award in his senior year to study health care in Haiti. Throughout his summer stint, he saw people dying of treatable diseases, and, after malaria took the life of a co-worker, Farmer decided he would specialize in infectious diseases. "Certainly, it was the most transformative experience of my life," he once said. Equally transformative is Farmer's story in the hands of a writer as skilled as Kidder. One can only wonder how many Paul Farmers it might inspire.