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.