Trustee Emeritus Paul Farmer, a Global Health Pioneer, Dies [Updated with March 12 Memorial Service Information]

Paul Farmer believed that global health projects must involve the people they are trying to help.
Paul Farmer believed that global health projects must involve the people they are trying to help.

Paul Farmer, a Duke alumnus and trustee emeritus who had a distinguished career as a leader in global health, has died in Rwanda at the age of 62.

All Duke flags on campus will be lowered through Wednesday in Farmer's honor.

Farmer was the Kolokotrones University Professor and chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He was also the founder and chief strategist of Partners In Health, an international nonprofit organization that works to address global health inequality around the world.

In a statement, Duke President Vincent Price said, “Like so many in the Duke community, I am shocked and saddened by the news of Paul Farmer’s passing. Paul was truly an inspiration, and he will rightfully be remembered for his pathbreaking work in global health and his selfless commitment to serving some of the most vulnerable populations in the world. His work saved countless lives; it also changed a great many lives for the better—the students he encouraged, the physicians he mentored, the friendships he forged the world over, and the family he loved.”

Duke alumnus and trustee Paul Farmer was the 2015 commencement speaker. Farmer, who resided in Rwanda, was profiled in Tracy Kidder's best-selling book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World.” The book was selected as the summer reading assignment for Duke's Class of 2008, and Farmer and Kidder spoke in Page Auditorium in connection with the book.

After graduating summa cum laude from Duke in 1982 with a degree in medical anthropology, Farmer spent a year in Haiti  – a decision that would set him on his life’s path. Farmer went on to earn both an M.D. and a Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard University.

In 1987, Farmer, along with Jim Yong Kim and others, co-founded Partners In Health to strengthen public health systems in order to provide quality health care in some of the world’s most vulnerable communities. Today, the organization has active sites in 12 countries across four continents.  

Farmer also served as the United Nations Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Community-Based Medicine.

A member of the Board of Advisors of the Duke Global Health Institute, Farmer was a role model and example for many in the Duke community. “Paul inspired countless students and faculty to pursue careers in global health through his passion for social justice and equity,” said Michael Merson, M.D., the Wolfgang Joklik Professor of Global Health and the founding director of the Duke Global Health Institute. “He was an invaluable impetus and mentor for the establishment of our Institute, and we will miss him greatly.”

Farmer’s numerous honors included a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine, from which he received the 2018 Public Welfare Medal. He received Duke’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2005.

A crowd in Page Auditorium awaits Paul Farmer to give the inaugural Lecture on Global Health, co-sponsored by the Duke Global Health Institute and the Duke University School of Nursing, April 21, 2008. Farmer served as a member of the Duke University Board of Trustees from 2009 to 2021. He gave the commencement address in 2015 – the year the graduation ceremony was held in the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

A frequent and popular speaker at Duke, Farmer participated most recently in a discussion sponsored by the Duke Global Health Institute on Jan. 26. In the 2022 Victor J. Dzau Distinguished Lecture in Global Health, Farmer reflected on his 20-year partnership with Agnes Binagwaho M.D., Ph.D., a longtime colleague who now serves as vice chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity, which she and Farmer co-founded. Speaking in front of students in Rwanda and a virtual audience of nearly 400, the two doctors discussed a wide range of topics, including the impact of COVID-19, failures in the global response to the pandemic, and the need for community-driven healthcare decisions and priorities.

In that event, Farmer was asked how students could prepare for careers in global health. He advised students to “talk to other people, listen to people and learn to have not just cultural competence, but cultural humility. And that fosters the kind of understanding that will help us move forward and tackle very big problems.”

Farmer is survived by his wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer, and their three children. Their daughter Catherine is a Duke graduate.