Paul Farmer, MD, Wins National Academy of Sciences' Top Honor

Megan Brooks

April 27, 2018

Physician and humanitarian Paul Farmer, MD, PhD, is this year's recipient of the National Academy of Sciences' Public Welfare Medal for "pioneering enduring, community-based treatment strategies that demonstrate the delivery of high-quality health care in resource-poor settings in the US and other countries," the academy said in a news release.

Established in 1914, the Public Welfare Medal is the academy's most prestigious award. It is presented annually to honor extraordinary use of science for the public good.

"Through innovation and sheer perseverance, Paul Farmer has overcome previously insurmountable obstacles to bring the miracles of modern medicine to people who otherwise may never have experienced them," said Marcia McNutt, PhD, president of the National Academy of Sciences. "He is a powerful force for justice and equality, and his example is one that we all should strive to emulate. Dr Farmer's nomination rose to the top from among a particularly competitive field of outstanding nominees."

Paul Farmer, MD, PhD  ZUMA Press/Alamy

"Paul Farmer's visionary, holistic approach to caring for those who are so often left behind has revolutionized global public health," added Susan Wessler, PhD, home secretary of the National Academy of Sciences and chair of the selection committee for the award. "He has inspired a new generation of health practitioners to follow in his footsteps, and his legacy of forging connections between health care delivery, social justice, and policy advocacy will continue for many decades to come," she said.

Partners in Health

Farmer attended Duke University on a full scholarship and graduated summa cum laude. He received an MD and a doctorate in medical anthropology from Harvard University. Farmer is Kolokotrones University Professor at Harvard University, chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

Farmer's passion for providing healthcare to the poor took hold while working with displaced Haitian farmers as an undergraduate at Duke. Appalled by the lack of healthcare he saw in Haiti, Farmer cofounded Partners in Health (PIH) in 1987 with fellow physician Jim Yong Kim, MD, PhD, who now leads the World Bank, and social justice and healthcare activist Ophelia Dahl, the daughter of author Roald Dahl. PIH, an international social justice and health organization, serves poor communities in 10 countries around the world. Farmer serves as chief strategist for the company.

"Saved Countless Lives"

In 1987, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis were rampant in Haiti. Public health experts were skeptical about whether it was possible to provide quality healthcare in a country with many challenges and few resources.

Silencing the skeptics, Farmer and his colleagues developed novel, community-based treatment strategies that demonstrated that these and other common diseases can be treated effectively in resource-poor settings. He also played a key role in securing funding for these programs.

"PIH's innovative model of community-based care delivery and providing access to world-class medicines has saved countless lives and is now being duplicated around the world," the academy said in the news release.

"More recently, in the wake of the devastating 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Farmer and PIH initiated health care programs in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Additionally, PIH recently launched the University of Global Health Equity, a new health sciences institution in rural Rwanda, to train the next generation of African health professionals and global health care leaders," the organization notes.

Farmer was featured in the critically acclaimed documentary film and best-selling book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder. "[Farmer and his colleagues] have offered the world vivid proofs that the entire range of human ailments can be successfully and economically treated in some of the most difficult settings imaginable, in places like Haiti and Liberia, in the slums of Lima and the prisons of Siberia," Kidder wrote in a letter of support for Farmer's nomination.

Farmer was named UN Deputy Special Envoy to Haiti in 2009 and is currently UN Special Adviser to the secretary-general on community-based medicine and lessons from Haiti.

Farmer has authored numerous books and articles and is the recipient of many awards and honors, including the Outstanding International Physician (Nathan Davis) Award from the American Medical Association, the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize for Partners in Health, and the S. Roger Horchow Award for Greatest Public Service by a Private Citizen. He is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The Public Welfare Medal was presented to Farmer on April 29 during the academy's 155th annual meeting. More information on the award, including a list of past recipients, is available online.

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