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Paul Farmer, Pioneer of Global Health, Dies at 62

As a medical student, Dr. Farmer decided to build a clinic in Haiti. It grew into a vast network serving some of the world’s poorest communities.

Paul Farmer, a physician and anthropologist who sought to bring high-quality health care to some of the world’s poorest people, died on Monday in Rwanda. He was 62.

Partners in Health, the global public health organization that Dr. Farmer co-founded, announced his death in a statement that did not specify the cause. Dr. Farmer previously lived in Rwanda and spent decades focused on improving its health care system.

Dr. Farmer gained public renown thanks largely to “Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World,” a 2003 book by Tracy Kidder. It told Dr. Farmer’s life story and celebrated his devotion to helping the neediest.

After he graduated from college in 1982, Dr. Farmer lived for years among Haiti’s poorest farmers, sleeping for only one or two hours a night as he set up a new medical infrastructure.

He eventually returned to the United States to attend Harvard Medical School and earn a degree in anthropology, but he continued to spend much of his time in Cange, the community where he built his first clinic, returning to Harvard for exams and laboratory work.

Over the years that followed, Dr. Farmer raised millions of dollars, which were funneled to an ever-expanding network of community health facilities. He had a contagious enthusiasm; when Thomas White, who owned a large construction company in Boston, asked to meet him, he insisted that the meeting take place in Haiti.

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Dr. Paul Farmer speaking with an HIV patient, Altagrace Cenatus, at the Partners in Health hospital, in 2003.Credit…Angel Franco/The New York Times

Mr. White became a core donor, and contributed $1 million in seed money to Partners in Health, which Dr. Farmer founded in 1987, along with Ophelia Dahl, another volunteer in Haiti, and a former Duke classmate, Todd McCormack.

The clinic in Haiti, at first a single room, grew, over the years, into a hospital and adjoining nursing school, serving a community of more than 150,000 people.

Dr. Farmer became a public health luminary, the subject of a 2017 documentary, “Bending the Arc,” and the author of 12 books. The latest, “Fevers, Feuds and Diamonds: Ebola and the Ravages of History,” sought to dispel the more lurid misconceptions about the illness and focus on the dearth of health care essentials in upper West Africa.

“For all their rainfall,” Dr. Farmer wrote, “their citizens are stranded in the medical desert.”

In 2020, Dr. Farmer received the $1 million Berggruen Prize, given annually to a person whose ideas have “profoundly shaped human self-understanding and advancement in a rapidly changing world.”

The chairman of the prize committee, Kwame Anthony Appiah, said Dr. Farmer had “reshaped our understanding” of “what it means to treat health as a human right and the ethical and political obligations that follow.”

Dr. Farmer’s survivors include his wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer, a researcher for Partners in Health, and their children, Elizabeth, Catherine and Sebastian.

A full obituary will be published soon.

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