To the Harvard Chan School Community:
It is with great sadness that I’m sharing the news that Paul Farmer passed away today.
As many of you know, Paul dedicated his remarkable life to improving health care for the most vulnerable people in the world. He embodied the spirit that is public health, working tirelessly to promote human rights and human dignity.
Paul co-founded Partners in Health, a global nonprofit charged with developing innovative strategies for reaching remote communities and delivering high-quality care even—or rather, especially—in areas with few resources. Paul also served as chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity, which aims to train a new generation of global health leaders to build sustainable, equitable, and resilient health systems for the world’s poor. Closer to home, he was a pillar of our Longwood community as the Kolokotrones University Professor and chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Paul won numerous awards for his humanitarian service and was the recipient of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship as well as the Skoll Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year award.
Recounting the full list of Paul’s achievements would take many paragraphs. What I want to convey today is my deep appreciation for the values he held and the life he lived. Across the decades, starting when he was still in school, he made an immense and tangible difference to millions of people in Haiti, in Rwanda, in Peru, and in so many other troubled corners of the world. He lifted up communities closer to home as well; to cite just one recent example, he helped establish a contact tracing program that played an important role in shaping the response to COVID in Massachusetts. He pushed limits in a way that made many of us redefine our definition of what was possible. And he did it all with an enormous empathy that came from embedding himself in the communities he served, so he could truly understand their needs and their priorities.
In remembering Paul, I keep returning to the word “remarkable.” His death at age 62 is a tragedy, an enormous loss for the field of public health and for the people of the world. But we know his legacy will live on for generations – in the lives he touched, in the physicians he trained, in the programs he developed, in the good works he inspired. His legacy lives on, as well, in his three children and his wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer. Our hearts are with them at this most difficult time.
I encourage you to read this beautiful obituary for Paul in the Boston Globe; it includes moving tributes from several of his heartbroken colleagues. I will keep you informed of memorial services as plans develop.
I’ll close with a quote from Paul’s 2003 book, “Pathologies of Power.” He wrote: “It took me a relatively short time in Haiti to discover that I could never serve as a dispassionate reporter or chronicler of misery. I am only on the side of the destitute sick and have never sought to represent myself as some sort of neutral party.”
May we all live up to that legacy.
Michelle A. Williams, ScD
Dean of the Faculty, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Angelopoulos Professor in Public Health and International Development,
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Kennedy School