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Renowned Harvard Physician Paul Farmer Dies at Age 62

Paul Farmer is survived by his wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer, and their three children.
Paul Farmer is survived by his wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer, and their three children. By Courtesy of Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University
By Ariel H. Kim and Meimei Xu, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: February 22, 2022 at 12:47 a.m.

Paul E. Farmer, the renowned Harvard physician and medical anthropologist who dedicated his career to delivering health care to some of the world’s poorest regions, has died at age 62.

Farmer died in his sleep while in Rwanda, according to Partners in Health, the global health nonprofit he co-founded in 1987. The organization did not specify a cause of death.

Farmer, a towering figure in global health, was remembered Monday with statements from a former United States president, top Harvard faculty, and leading public health officials.

Farmer is survived by his wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer, and their three children.

Farmer spent decades working to combat global health inequities. Partners in Health, which he founded alongside four others, works to build public health infrastructure and provide medical care to the poorest regions of developing nations. The organization now operates in 11 countries.

“Paul Farmer’s loss is devastating, but his vision for the world will live on through Partners in Health,” the organization’s CEO, Sheila Davis, wrote in a statement Monday. “Paul taught all those around him the power of accompaniment, love for one another, and solidarity.”

The author of 12 books, he was also a renowned academic, conducting pioneering work on infectious diseases, health and human rights, and social inequality as a professor at Harvard. In 2010, he was named a University Professor, the school’s highest faculty distinction.

Farmer served as chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, where he received an M.D. and a Ph.D. He was also chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Paul Farmer embraces Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, the South African anti-apartheid and human rights activist who died in December 2021.
Paul Farmer embraces Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, the South African anti-apartheid and human rights activist who died in December 2021. By The Skoll Foundation via Wikimedia Commons

Harvard Medical School Dean George Q. Daley ’82 wrote in an email to school affiliates Monday that Farmer “represented the heart and soul” of HMS.

“A compassionate physician and infectious disease specialist, a brilliant and influential medical anthropologist, and among the greatest humanitarians of our time—perhaps all time—Paul dedicated his life to improving human health and advocating for health equity and social justice on a global scale,” Daley wrote. “I am particularly shaken by his passing because he was not only a consummate colleague and a beloved mentor, but a close friend.”

As news of Farmer’s death spread Monday morning, remembrances began rolling in from world leaders and other renowned academics.

In a joint statement, former President Bill Clinton, ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and their daughter Chelsea Clinton wrote, “Paul was one of the most extraordinary people we have ever known.”

“His pioneering work with Partners In Health touched millions of lives, advanced global health equity, and fundamentally changed the way health care is delivered in the most impoverished places on Earth,” the Clintons wrote. “He was brilliant, passionate, kind, and humble. He saw every day as a new opportunity to teach, learn, give, and serve—and it was impossible to spend any amount of time with him and not feel the same.”

Farmer was the recipient of dozens of awards and honors, including a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the Outstanding International Physician Award from the American Medical Association, the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture, and the Hilton Humanitarian Prize, which he received with his PIH co-founders.

“This is an irreplaceable loss to us and to the world,” Harvard Anthropology Chair Ajantha Subramanian wrote in an email to department affiliates on Monday. “My deepest condolences to those of you who were close to Paul.”

Samantha J. Power, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, wrote in a tweet that “Farmer gave everything—everything—to others.”

“He saw the worst, and yet did all he could to bring out the best in everyone he encountered. Indefatigable, mischievous, generous, brilliant, soulful, skeptical, idealistic, beloved,” she wrote. “A giant.”

—Staff writer Ariel H. Kim can be reached at ariel.kim@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Meimei Xu can be reached at meimei.xu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MeimeiXu7.

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