Harvard community and colleagues from around world look back at Farmer’s contributions and

Harvard Medical School

Although he no longer walks with us, Paul Farmer’s legacy is very much alive.

  • By JAKE MILLER

Farmer, who died unexpectedly on Feb. 21, at the age of 62, while teaching in Rwanda, opened a path to the future of health equity by pioneering a practice of medicine for those most in need that combines world-class clinical care with a holistic and deeply moral dimension to preventing illness. The approach, which is based on social science research, also promotes wellness and takes into account the social, cultural, economic, and environmental context of each individual, a type of medicine that promises to serve as a crucial benchmark for all who seek to build a healthier, more just world.

That was the central message of a daylong event at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre on Oct. 1 that combined a memorial program and an inaugural academic symposium to celebrate Farmer’s life and work and honor his pioneering achievements.

Farmer was the Kolokotrones University Professor and chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS, chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and co-founder and chief strategist of Partners In Health.

Faculty, colleagues, students, mentees, and friends of Farmer looked to his words and deeds for guidance into how to continue the work that he had dedicated his life to. The event, organized by Harvard Medical School, was open to the public. A video will be available soon.

A great, sacred tree

The day began with a memorial program celebrating Farmer’s accomplishments as a doctor, a scholar, an educator, and a leader who helped launch a growing movement to build community-based, global-scale solutions for an equitable, human rights-based approach to health care.

While Farmer was a great light that shined across the world, each person has that same light within, noted Emmanuel Akyeampong, the Ellen Gurney Professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University and minister for worship and formation in the Harvard Memorial Church.

“Let us leave here resolute that our light will drive away the dark shadows of despair wherever our feet may carry us,” said Akyeampong, who delivered the opening and closing remarks at the memorial.

Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow welcomed Farmer’s family, colleagues, friends, students, other members of the community in attendance, and those who joined from around the world via livestream. Bacow spoke of Farmer’s impassioned commitment to the value of every person, no matter where they lived or under what circumstances, as a powerful inspiration.

“My time with him was a gift that I will treasure forever,” Bacow said. He noted that there is a Jewish tradition that holds that each generation includes 36 people whose righteousness justifies the existence of the world. While the identity of those 36 righteous individuals remains a secret unknown even to themselves, Bacow said, Farmer was a candidate for inclusion.

“Paul, I believe, was a person who walked among us for a time to remind us that none of us travels alone,” Bacow said. “We proceed through life alongside one another, and every step that we take together, as individuals and through the institutions we build, should bring us closer to our ideals.”

The program also included personal reflections from Farmer’s colleagues, family, mentors, students, and friends, including Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director, Equal Justice Initiative; Bill Gates, co-chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and Jim Yong Kim co-founder, Partners in Health and former head of the World Bank and of the HMS department of global health and social medicine.

Farmer’s wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer, spoke about the deep sense of loss her family and Farmer’s closest friends shared not only with each other but with the many people around the world who have been touched by Farmer’s work. When news of Farmer’s sudden passing spread in Haiti, Bertrand Farmer’s native country, many people used a common expression spoken to mark the passing of a pillar of the community, a Creole phrase that means “a great, sacred tree has fallen.”

Farmer, who was widely known for his love of trees and gardening, spent many hours over the years planting trees around the world. Farmer also planted the seeds of a better future in the clinics and educational programs he founded, the lives he saved and shaped, and the many friends and students he left behind, Bertrand Farmer said.

“While we all mourn our great tree that has fallen, we take great joy at all the others that have grown up tall around it,” Bertrand Farmer said.

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