Doctor to the World

October 1, 2005

 

Farmer with patient: from Haiti to global health care

Farmer with patient: from Haiti to global health care

Mark Rosenberg © 2002 Partners In Health.
All rights reserved.

Physician, educator, author, and community activist are just a few of the hats that Paul Edward Farmer '82 wears--all at the same time. The infectious-disease specialist and co-founder of Partners In Health will be presented the 2005 Distinguished Alumni Award during Founders' Day ceremonies on September 29.

Established in 1983 by the Duke Alumni Association, the award is given to alumni who have made significant contributions in their own fields, in service to the university, or for the betterment of humanity. Farmer was selected from nominations made by Duke alumni, faculty members, trustees, administrators, and students.

Speaking on campus in last year's Duke Magazine Forum, Farmer remarked on how he got started on his path toward bringing medical care to the poor. "All of it: Haiti, medicine, medical anthropology, social-justice work. It all started right here. And I really wanted to come here after I saw the place. I'm not sure that I even bothered applying anywhere else."

Before he earned a medical degree and a Ph.D. in anthropology at Harvard University in 1990, before he entered Duke on a full scholarship, Farmer had a peripatetic upbringing. His father, Paul Farmer Sr., was a salesman; his mother, Ginny, had dropped out of college to marry him. With six children in tow, they migrated from Massachusetts to Alabama as his father's sales jobs dwindled. After leaving a sales career for teaching, his father moved the family, eventually, to Brooksville, Florida, in "The Blue Bird Inn," a large bus that became their home in a trailer park. They had to rely upon a convenience store's outdoor spigot for their drinking water.

The young Farmer excelled academically and socially in school, and was elected president of his senior class. He wanted to become a doctor. He took the advice of his guidance counselor, who persuaded him to aim higher, not merely settle for local universities. He applied to Duke because, he says, it was "closest to Florida."

During his junior year at Duke, he went to Paris to study anthropology with Claude Levi-Strauss. He earned extra money as an au pair, returning to Duke speaking fluent French. He became active in farmworker issues after touring migrant farm camps in Wilson County, North Carolina, where he met a number of Haitians working in the tobacco fields. Taken aback by the lack of sanitation facilities and inhumane living conditions, he wrote of their predicament in "Haitians Without a Home," in the spring issue of the student publication Aeolus.

According to his biographer, Tracy Kidder, in Mountains Beyond Mountains, "Farmer left Duke interested in all things Haitian." In 1983, he traveled to the island on a Benenson Award he had won his senior year. His proposal for the award, established by 2002 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient Edward H. Benenson '34, was originally to fund an anthropological study of Haitian art. But Farmer shifted its focus from art to health care. The trip to Haiti proved to be a turning point.

A year later, he started medical school at Harvard. In 1987, with the aid of Boston philanthropists, he helped found Partners In Health, a public charity that works to treat infectious diseases among Haiti's rural poor. For his work there, he won a MacArthur Fellowship, a "genius grant," for $200,000. He immediately established the Institute for Health and Social Justice, channeling the money back into community-based initiatives to improve health and economic conditions for the poor.

A medical doctor and a professor of anthropology at Harvard's Medical School, Farmer shuttles between Cambridge and Haiti, where he maintains a practice at Clinique Bon Saveur, the charity hospital he helped found in the central plateau of Haiti. He is the author of Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues (2001) and Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor (2003), published by the University of California Press.

In accepting the ninth annual Heinz Award for the Human Condition in 2002, Farmer spoke of one of his driving forces. "Improving the human condition is what moves us. Partners In Health works on behalf of the sick, the naked, the hungry, the thirsty, and the imprisoned. One man's words ... we work for the victims of oppression, including racism, gender inequality, mean-spirited policies, and political violence. There are patients because of these misfortunes."