In praise of Paul Farmer

From an email by John Quattrochi:

There are no mentions of Paul Farmer, who recently passed away, on MR. This is a shame, because he excelled in two areas of interest to you: talent identification and cross-cultural integration of ideas.

Paul did so much for so many people that it’s easy to lose sight of what set him apart. He was a leader in the social movement to improve health among the most vulnerable. He did so by building organizations and writing and speaking across multiple cultures.

He began by going to an important center in his industry and becoming an understudy to a master practitioner. Rural Haiti is to health vulnerability what Silicon Valley is to tech innovation. In his early 20s, Paul went there to work for Fritz Lafontant, a Wozniak-like Haitian priest pioneering a community-based approach to the social determinants of health.

Paul then identified the talent with whom he would co-found, in 1987, aged 28, the central organization for his work, Zanmi Lasante (“Partners in Health”). In 1983, he met and recruited the 18-year-old Ophelia Dahl. She has been in PIH leadership for 35 years. Around the same time, he met and recruited fellow medical student Jim Kim, who also led PIH, before stints as president of Dartmouth and the World Bank.  From his undergrad friends, he brought on Todd McCormack, son of the founder of one of the world’s leading talent management agencies, IMG. And finally, for startup capital, he successfully pitched Tom White, a 67-year-old Boston construction magnate.

To expand his movement, he adapted his ideas to the peculiar idioms of many cultures and subcultures: medicine, anthropology, Christianity, Washington DC, Haiti, Russia, Rwanda, and more. He lectured widely, and always lingered afterward, forging brief but powerful individual connections. His charisma included equal parts moral exhortation and dry humor. As a Harvard professor for over 30 years, he convinced many students to join his movement in lieu of (or in addition to) rent-seeking careers in finance or management consulting.

Paul is often called a hero. Yet, if a hero is someone who sacrifices much, Paul may not qualify. By all appearances he loved his work and was richly rewarded in status and attention. What’s not debatable is his genius. From boardrooms to bedsides, lecture halls to shanty stalls, he channeled the idea that every human life has equal moral worth in irreplicable ways. His legacy is immense.



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