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USF to honor humanitarian Dr. Paul Farmer

TAMPA, Fla. -- From the slums of Lima, Peru, to miserable Russian jails and the violence of Rwanda to the earthquake-ravaged cities of Haiti, medical anthropologist Dr. Paul Farmer has seen the worst and most desperate conditions in which humankind exists.

But Farmer -- a co-founder of Partners in Health, the United Nations’ deputy special envoy to Haiti and recognized by world leaders as perhaps one of the most notable humanitarians of his generation -- also remains one of the most hopeful voices that the world can do better in caring for its most helpless.

On Friday, the Brooksville, Fla., native will be recognized by the University of South Florida with an honorary doctorate in humane letters. While Farmer never attended USF many members of his family have, making the event a bit of a homecoming.

Nominated by USF’s Department of Anthropology in an effort led by USF Professor Linda Whiteford, who co-authored a recent book on global health and violence with Farmer, the honorary degree recognizes his on-going efforts to advance the cause of health care as a human right and focus powerful world leaders on making health care a priority.

Farmer’s work has focused on the inadequacy of efforts to treat the physical manifestations of epidemics and diseases when the root causes are poverty, injustice and discrimination. By galvanizing a global community willing to examine the social structures that perpetuate inequality and poverty -- creating what Farmer calls the “stupid deaths” -- progress can be made on such devastating maladies as AIDS, malaria, infant deaths and malnutrition.

This understanding of “structural violence,” Whiteford said, allows nations to look both inward and outward and address the suffering, violence and inhumane conditions.

“He’s saved a lot of individual lives, but his great impact is looking at the structural barriers to people trying to receive care,” said Whiteford, who joined with Farmer and anthropologist Barbara Rylko-Bauer in authoring and editing “Global Health in Times of Violence,” a text released just a week before the 2010 earthquake which devastated Haiti.

“One of Paul’s great contributions is to look at the way our own social structures choose particular categories of people to exclude,” she said.

Whiteford met Farmer serendipitously more than 20 years ago when his sister, Peggy, attended one of Whiteford’s classes. At the time, Whiteford was researching maternal and child health in the Dominican Republic, on the other side of the island of Hispaniola where Farmer and Partners in Health had just opened its first clinic. Baby Doc Duvalier -- the infamous dictator -- was still in power, making Haiti one of the most dangerous places on earth for anyone to challenge the status quo. While it took 10 years of hearing about each other for the two to actually meet, they became fast friends and academic colleagues.

In addition to leading Partners in Health and traveling the world to bring attention to entrenched poverty and sickness, Farmer is chairman of Harvard Medical School’s Department of Global Health and Social Medicine and an attending physician and Chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Among his many awards and honors is being named a MacArthur Fellow in 1993, winning one of the famed “genius grants.”

“This ‘son of Florida,’ this person of the world, is a scholar, a healer, a humanitarian of incredible proportions,” wrote Kris Heggenhougen, a professor emeritus at the Center for International Health at the University of Bergen, one of a series of notable universities to write in support of the honorary doctorate for Farmer. “He is constantly concerned with changing the world for the better, to have a positive impact on the lives of real people in real communities -- especially the poor.”

His career achievements at the age of 52 alone would represent a lifetime achievement for most, but Farmer is further credited with giving greater visibility to medical anthropology by applying it on a global stage and using it to transform the understanding of health and illness.

“It’s important for people who don’t know who he is to know that one of the extraordinary things about Paul is he combines two truly important disciplines and he combines them in a way that makes them each more powerful than they are by themselves,” Whiteford said. “He embeds medicine in its social context, in the social reality of our lives thereby certainly enriching our understanding of medicine. And because Paul’s practice is explicitly embedded in the social fabric, it also illuminates our understanding of society,” Whiteford added.

For more information on Paul Farmer’s work and Partners in Health, visit


Filed under:Arts and Sciences     
Author: Vickie Chachere