This story was updated Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022.
Feb. 22, 2022 -- Paul Edward Farmer, MD, a renowned infectious disease specialist, humanitarian, and health care champion for many of the world’s most vulnerable patient populations, died suddenly in his sleep from a cardiac event Monday in Rwanda, where he had been teaching. He was 62.
Farmer co-founded the Boston-based global nonprofit Partners in Health and spent decades providing health care to impoverished communities worldwide, fighting on the frontline to protect underserved communities against deadly pandemics.
Farmer was the Kolokotrones University professor and chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School. He served as chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“Paul dedicated his life to improving human health and advocating for health equity and social justice on a global scale,” Harvard Medical School Dean George Q. Daley said in a letter to the school. “I am particularly shaken by his passing because he was not only a consummate colleague and a beloved mentor, but a close friend. To me, Paul represented the heart and soul of Harvard Medical School.”
He was also chancellor and co-founder of the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda. Before his death, he had spent the past several weeks teaching at the university.
“Paul Farmer’s loss is devastating, but his vision for the world will live on through Partners in Health,” Sheila Davis, CEO of the nonprofit health group, said in a statement. “Paul taught all those around him the power of accompaniment, love for one another, and solidarity. Our deepest sympathies are with his family.”
Farmer was born in North Adams, MA, and grew up in Florida with his parents and five siblings. He attended Duke University on a Benjamin N. Duke Scholarship and received his medical degree in 1988, followed by his PhD in 1990 from Harvard University.
His humanitarian work began when he was a college student volunteering in Haiti in 1983, working with dispossessed farmers. In 1987, he co-founded Partners in Health with the goal of helping patients in poverty-stricken corners of the world.
Under Farmer’s leadership, the nonprofit tackled major public health crises: Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, drug-resistant tuberculosis in Peru and other countries, and an Ebola outbreak that tore through West Africa.
Farmer documented his 2014-2015 experience treating Africa’s Ebola patients in a book called Fevers, Feuds, and Diamonds: Ebola and the Ravages of History.
He wrote that by the time he had arrived, “western Sierra Leone was ground zero of the epidemic, and Upper West Africa was just about the worst place in the world to be critically ill or injured.”
One of his greatest qualities was his ability to connect with patients -- to treat them “not like ones who suffered, but like a pal you’d joke with,” said Pardis Sabeti, MD, PhD, a Harvard University geneticist who also spent time in Africa and famously sequenced samples of the Ebola virus’s genome.
Sabeti and Farmer bonded over their love for Sierra Leone, along with their grief over losing a close colleague to Ebola: Humarr Khan, who was one of the area’s leading infectious disease experts.
Sabeti first met Farmer years earlier as a first-year Harvard medical student when she enrolled in one of his courses. She said students introduced themselves, one by one, each veering into heartfelt testimonies about what Farmer’s work had meant to them.
Farmer and Sabeti were just texting on Saturday, and the two were, “goofing around in our usual way, and scheming about how to make the world better, as we always did.”
Farmer was funny, mischievous, and above all, exactly what you would expect upon meeting him, Sabeti said.
“It’s cliché, but the energetic kick you get from just being in his presence, it’s almost otherworldly,” she said. “It’s not even otherworldly in the sense of, ‘I just came across greatness.’ It’s more, ‘I just came across kindness.’”
Joseph Rhatigan, MD, associate chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at the Brigham, said his friend of 30 years was "a doctor's doctor, bright and erudite, but also very compassionate."
Rhatigan said they were together in Rwanda two weeks ago, when Farmer organized a game viewing party for his Liverpool soccer-loving patient: a 21-year-old man dying of metastasized bone cancer. The party included family, friends, and a small cake Farmer asked the cook to make for the occasion.
"That was Paul. He did that sort of thing for patients all the time," Rhatigan said. "Just a small beautiful thing for someone who was very sick."
Farmer’s work has been widely distributed in publications including Bulletin of the World Health Organization, The Lancet, TheNew England Journal of Medicine, Clinical Infectious Diseases, and Social Science and Medicine.
He was awarded the 2020 Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture, the Margaret Mead Award from the American Anthropological Association, the American Medical Association’s Outstanding International Physician (Nathan Davis) Award, and, with his Partners in Health colleagues, the Hilton Humanitarian Prize.
He is survived by his wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer, and their three children.