Remembering Paul Farmer

In the late 1990s, Paul Farmer was usually the last doctor to leave the intensive care unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Atul Gawande, then a surgical resident, would find him there and the two would talk late into the night, discussing how to fix a health care system that, for the poor and marginalized, was utterly broken. It was Farmer’s favorite topic, and one that inspired Gawande as well.

Farmer provided a “moral center,” Gawande said. “He gave us the moral framework.”

Around the same time, as a young resident interested in caring for AIDS patients in impoverished settings, Joia Mukherjee visited central Haiti, where the nonprofit Partners In Health was successfully treating AIDS with the latest antiretroviral drugs despite official skepticism. She would soon join the organization, whose major accomplishments include redefining the feasibility — and necessity — of providing health care regardless of wealth and setting. Caveats have been replaced by certainty, limitations by determination, and, in many places, hopelessness and suffering by prevention and life-saving care. Over 40 years, the work of Farmer, Mukherjee, and thousands of others who joined the effort have pushed global health to a more humane place.

“He showed us that the moral high ground can win,” said Mukherjee, a Harvard Medical School associate professor and medical director of Partners In Health, which was founded in 1987 by Farmer and a small group of individuals dedicated to improving health care for the poor.

On Tuesday, Mukherjee and Gawande were still reeling over the loss of Farmer, 62, who died Monday in Rwanda. Mukherjee said there had been no apparent health warnings. In fact, she had spoken with him just the day before, and he told her how happy he was to be in Rwanda, where he had a home with his wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer, and their three children.

The two were joined in their mourning by colleagues and friends across Harvard and throughout the global health community. People exchanged emails and phone calls and gathered on videoconference to process their loss and celebrate a doctor and professor remembered as friendly and just, skilled and compassionate, tireless and inspiring.