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U.S.LIFE > People > Biographies of Famous Americans > Paul Farmer

Paul Farmer

Medical anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer has dedicated his life to treating some of the world's poorest populations, in the process helping to raise the standard of health care in underdeveloped areas of the world.  A founding director of Partners In Health, an international charity organization that provides direct health care services and undertakes research and advocacy activities on behalf of those who are sick and living in poverty, Dr. Farmer and his colleagues have successfully challenged the policymakers and critics who claim that quality health care is impossible to deliver in resource-poor areas.

Paul Farmer has worked in infectious-disease control in the Americas for nearly two decades and is a world-renowned authority on tuberculosis treatment and control.  His work draws primarily on active clinical practice (Dr. Farmer is an attending physician in infectious diseases and Chief of the Division of Social Medicine and Health Inequalities at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, and medical director of a small hospital, the Clinique Bon Sauveur, in rural Haiti) and focuses on diseases that disproportionately afflict the poor.  Along with his colleagues at the Brigham and in the Program in Infectious Disease and Social Change at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Farmer has pioneered novel, community-based treatment strategies for infectious diseases (including HIV/AIDS and multidrug-resistant tuberculosis) in resource-poor settings.  He has also written extensively about health and human rights, and about the role of social inequalities in the distribution and outcomes of readily treatable diseases.  His work in Haiti has taught him that poverty, inequality, and political turmoil lead inevitably to poor health outcomes among the vulnerable, and this belief fuels his scholarly, clinical, advocacy, and charitable activities.

Paul Farmer began his lifelong commitment to Haiti when still a student, in 1983, working with villages in Haiti's Central Plateau; the following year he began medical school at Harvard, and two years later helped found Zanmi Lastane (Creole for Partners In Health), serving as its medical director from 1991 to the present.  Boston-based Partners In Health was founded in 1987.  Zanmi Lasante -- which has grown from a one-building clinic in the village of Cange to a multiservice health complex that includes a primary school, an infirmary, a surgery wing, a training program for health outreach workers, a 104-bed hospital, a women's clinic, and a pediatric care facility -- has pioneered the treatment of both multidrug-resistant tuberculosis and HIV in Haiti.  This role was key in helping Haiti qualify in 2002 among the first group of countries awarded money from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria; Haiti was actually the first country in the world to receive these funds and begin employing them to fight disease.  A ringing endorsement of Partners In Health's community-based approach to health care, the award has allowed Zanmi Lasante to expand its treatment facilities into neighboring communities, where it is the only health-care provider for hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers in the Central Plateau -- and a model for poor communities world wide.  In Cange alone, the small medical staff often sees over 300 patients a day, close to 220,000 patients each year.

With colleagues in Haiti and Peru, Dr. Farmer has helped lead the international response to mutlidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB), later found to be endemic in the former Soviet Union, by establishing pilot MDR-TB treatment programs and organizing effective delivery systems for medications.  Working closely with the Open Society Institute, he has participated in evaluations of TB treatment programs in Russia, Peru, Azerbaijan, Latvia, Kazakhstan, with a special interest in TB among prison populations.  Dr. Farmer was instrumental in establishing the World Health Organization's Working Group on MDR-TB and has been a member of DOTS-Plus Working Group for the Global Tuberculosis Programme of the World Health Organization; Chief Advisor of Tuberculosis Programs of the Open Society Institute; Chief Medical Consultant for the Tuberculosis Treatment Project in the Prisons of Tomsk (Siberia); and a member of the Scientific Committee of the WHO Working Group on DOTS-Plus for MDR-TB.  He has served on the Scientific Review board of ten of the last international conferences on AIDS, and has been a leading voice on behalf of HIV/AIDS and MDR-TB patients across the world.

Author or co-author of over 100 scholarly publications, his research and writing stem in large part from work in Haiti and Peru, and from clinical and teaching activities.  He is the author of the recently published Pathologies of Power (University of California Press, 2003); Infections and Inequalities (University of California Press, 1998); The Uses of Haiti (Common Courage Press, 1994); and  AIDS and Accusation (University of California Press, 1992).  In addition, he is co-editor of  Women, Poverty and AIDS (Common Courage Press, 1996) and of  The Global Impact of Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis (Harvard Medical School and Open Society Institute, 1999).

Currently Presley Professor of Medical Anthropology in the Department of Social Medicine at the Harvard Medical School, Dr. Farmer has both taught in and served as a course director for social-medicine courses in the Department.  He also trains medical students, residents, and fellows at the Brigham and Women's Hospital.  He has been a visiting professor at institutions throughout the U.S. as well as in France, Canada, Peru, the Netherlands, Russia, and Central Asia.

Among the numerous awards Dr. Farmer has received in the last decade are the Duke University Humanitarian Award, the Margaret Mead Award from the American Anthropological Association, and the American Medical Association's International Physician (Nathan Davis) Award.  In 1993, he was awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation "genius award" in recognition of his work.  Perhaps no award so typifies Paul Farmer's life and accomplishments, however, as the Heinz Award for the Human Condition, which he received in 2003.  "To say that Dr. Paul Farmer is a life saver does not begin to describe the impact of his work," said Teresa Heinz, chairman of the Heinz Family Foundation.  "Dr. Farmer and his extraordinary organization have been a force in making the world confront the health care needs of those who historically have never had access to proper care.  Because of his dedication and compassion, critical health care services are now being administered around the globe to people who previously would have been left untreated."

In his acceptance of the Heinz Award, Paul Farmer reminded us all that "as members of the world community, we must recognize that we can and should summon our collective resources to save the countless lives that were previously alleged to be beyond our help."  He believes we can do no less than this.

Dr. Farmer received his Bachelor's degree in 1982 from Duke University, and his M.D. and Ph.D. (in Anthropology) simultaneously in 1990 from Harvard University.  He and his wife, anthropologist Didi Bertrand, live in Paris and in Haiti.  They have a five-year-old daughter, Catherine.

August 2003

This information was provided courtesy of Brigham and Women's Hospital.


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