The legacy of Dr. Paul Farmer: A timeline

Paul Farmer, MD, PhD, a global public health leader and founder of the nonprofit Partners in Medicine, died Feb. 21 at age 62.  

Dr. Farmer died from an acute cardiac event while sleeping, according to NPR. The physician and anthropologist had been in Rwanda for a few weeks teaching at a medical school he co-founded. 

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

Below is a timeline including some of Dr. Farmer's life and notable healthcare achievements, per NPR and the nonprofit Academy of Achievement

  • Dr. Farmer was born Oct. 26, 1959, in North Adams, Mass. He later earned a full scholarship to Durham, N.C.-based Duke University, where he studied medical anthropology. He graduated summa cum laude in 1982.

  • In 1983, Dr. Farmer traveled to Haiti to work in public health clinics. He visited the village of Cange, a community without access to clean drinking water, education or medical care, and high rates of malaria, tuberculosis and typhoid. Dr. Farmer set out to build a clinic that would treat everyone — regardless of ability to pay — and that would train and employ local health workers.

  • Dr. Farmer was still in Haiti when he was accepted to Boston-based Harvard Medical School. He enrolled and took his study materials back to Haiti. For the next three years, he commuted from Haiti to Harvard, returning to the U.S. for exams and lab work. Despite his absences, Dr. Farmer's grades were among the highest in his class.

  • Along with two others, Dr. Farmer founded a community-based health project in Haiti known as Zanmi Lasante. The operation eventually grew from a one-room clinic to a hospital with a nursing school, operating rooms, satellite communications and blood bank. It serves more than 150,000 people, employs local workers, and dispenses food, water, housing assistance, education and other social services. 

  • In 1987, Dr. Farmer helped found Partners in Health in Haiti, which has since expanded to Africa, Peru, Russia, Mexico and the Navajo Nation in the U.S. The organization's mission is to provide high-quality care to patients from impoverished backgrounds and those without access to healthcare. 

  • Dr. Farmer received both his medical degree and a PhD in anthropology from Harvard Medical School.

  • In 1990, the physician carried out a yearlong residency at Boston-based Brigham and Women's Hospital. He later served as an attending specialist on the senior staff, while launching a program in Boston to address HIV and tuberculosis.

  • In Haiti, some of Dr. Farmer's innovative therapies were curing infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, for a hundredth of the price that treating the same disease would cost at a U.S. hospital. In 1993, the MacArthur Foundation recognized this achievement with a $220,000 "genius grant," which Dr. Farmer donated to PIH to start the Institute for Health and Social Justice, a research program. 

  • By the end of the decade, Zanmi Lasante had built schools, houses, communal sanitation centers and water facilities. It had vaccinated children in the area, significantly reducing malnutrition and infant mortality. It also launched programs for women's literacy and AIDS prevention. The World Health Organization later adopted Zanmi Lasante's methods for controlling AIDS in more than 30 countries.

  • In 2003, author Tracy Kidder profiled Dr. Farmer in Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, which later became required reading for many global health students and practitioners.  

  • In 2009, Dr. Farmer became the head of the department of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School, where he was also the Presley Professor of Medical Anthropology. 

  • In August 2009, it was announced that the United Nations' Special Envoy to Haiti, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, had selected Dr. Farmer to be deputy envoy.

  • In 2010, Dr. Farmer was named Harvard Medical School's Kolokotrones University Professor. He also served as chief of global health equity at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

  • The 2017 documentary film Bending the Arc portrays Dr. Farmer's efforts to bring healthcare to the world's poorest and least-served populations.

  • In 2020, Dr. Farmer received the $1 million Berggruen Prize, an annual award given to those who have "profoundly shaped human self-understanding and advancement in a rapidly changing world."

  • By the end of his life, Dr. Farmer had published 12 books.  

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