Paul Farmer Biography

Paul Edward Farmer was a renowned anthropologist and physician who dedicated his life to providing high-quality medical facilities to impoverished people in developing countries. As a humanitarian, he firmly believed that every individual, regardless of their location, deserves access to the best medical care available. Farmer’s passion for helping the less fortunate began during his time at Duke University, where he studied medical anthropology under the guidance of the esteemed Claude Levi-Strauss. Witnessing the dire conditions of Haitian migrant workers on North Carolina tobacco plantations further fueled his determination to make a difference. This led him to co-found Partners In Health, a non-profit organization initially focused on assisting Haitians but has since expanded its reach globally. Farmer’s contributions extended beyond his work with Partners In Health; he authored numerous books on medical science and held the prestigious position of Kolokotrones University Professor at Harvard University. Additionally, he served as the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Adviser for Community-based Medicine and Lessons from Haiti.

Quick Facts

  • Died At Age: 62
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Didi
    • Siblings: Jeff Farmer
    • Children: Catherine, Elizabeth, Sebastian
  • Born Country: United States
  • Quotes By Paul Farmer
  • Humanitarian
  • Died on: February 21, 2022
  • Place of death: Butaro, Rwanda
  • U.S. State: Massachusetts
  • Founder/Co-Founder: Partners In Health(PIH)
  • More Facts
  • Education: Harvard Medical School, Hernando High School, Harvard University, Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, Duke University
  • Awards: Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, MacArthur Genius Grant, Public Welfare Medal, Heinz Award in the Human Condition, Berggruen Prize

Childhood & Early Life

Paul Farmer was born as one of the six children to a salesman and high school teacher in Massachusetts. His father, a “free spirit”, was in the habit of moving his large family frequently. Paul had an unconventional upbringing and spent most of his childhood in an old school bus which his father had converted into a mobile home. He became aware of the wider world and its problems due to the family’s frequent traveling. His parents instilled in their children a love for serious literature and an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Over the years he would acquire the skill of learning new languages with ease.


Paul Farmer excelled academically at the Hernando High School and was elected the president of his senior class. He earned a full scholarship to Duke University in North Carolina where he took a course in medical anthropology. While at the university, he was deeply influenced by the writings of the 19th century German physician and scientist Rudolf Virchow. While at Duke he became fascinated with the lives of the Haitian migrant workers at the nearby tobacco plantations. He was intrigued by them and their country and began learning all he could about Haiti, including the Creole language. He later attended Harvard University from where he earned an MD and a PhD in medical anthropology.


Paul Farmer went to Haiti in 1983 when the country was going through a very difficult time under the dictatorship of the Duvalier family. At that time the poor were having a horrible time accessing medical resources. The facilities for training local doctors and nurses were also very poor. Farmer found his calling there—he made it his life’s purpose to do something for Haiti’s impoverished. With the help of a Haitian priest, Father Lafontant and a young English woman, Ophelia Dahl, who had come to Haiti as a medical volunteer, he founded a community based health project called the Zanmi Lasante. He opened Clinique Bon Saveur, a small two room clinic in Cange, Haiti, in 1985. Owing to political tensions, Haiti’s dictator fled the country in 1986. Around this time AIDS was gaining epidemic proportions in Haiti’s urban slums. The suffering of the people propelled Farmer to do more for them. In 1987, Paul Farmer collaborated with Ophelia Dahl and a former Duke classmate, Todd McCormack, to found the Partners In Health (PIH) in Boston. Dahl served as the President and Executive Director while the philanthropist Tom White contributed a million dollars in the seed money. Harvard medical student Jim Yong Kim soon joined them. Paul Farmer launched a program in Boston to deal with rising rates of HIV and tuberculosis in Haiti. He also served as an attending specialist on the senior staff at Birmingham. He regularly went to Haiti and remained there whenever he could. By the 1990s, Zanmi Lasante in Haiti developed into a big hospital with modern facilities serving more than 150,000 people. Farmer’s innovative methods helped in treating infectious diseases in a very cost effective manner. The MacArthur Foundation recognized his efforts with a $220,000 grant in 1993, which Farmer used for starting a research program, the Institute for Health and Social Justice in PIH. The new millennium saw higher rates of vaccination, lower rates of infant mortality and malnourishment in the Zanmi Lasante area. The organization which also implemented programs for women’s literacy and AIDS prevention became a global model for healthcare; its methods of AIDS control were adopted by the World Health Organization in 30 countries. The former U.S. President Bill Clinton made Farmer the Deputy UN Special Envoy for Haiti in 2009, a role he served in till 2012.

Major Works

Paul Farmer’s biggest contribution to humanity is the health organization Partners In Health (PIH)—Zanmi Lasante is a Haitian sister organization. The organization aims to deliver the benefits of modern medical facilities to the poorest and sickest of people, especially those living in impoverished countries.

Awards & Achievements

Paul Farmer was awarded Austin College Leadership Award ($100,000) in 2007 which he in turn donated to PIH. He received the S. Roger Horchow Award for Greatest Public Service by a Private Citizen by the Jefferson Awards in 2010. In 2015, Paul received Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award For Social Entrepreneurship. In 2019, The National Institute of Social Sciences honored Paul Farmer with a Gold Medal for Distinguished Service to Humanity. In 2020, he was awarded the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture.

Personal Life & Death

Paul Farmer married Didi Bertrand, a Haitian-born anthropologist. The couple had three children. He died in his sleep in Butaro, Rwanda, on February 21, 2022, at the age of 62.

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