I think it’s important for us to live in an inclusive world. Excluding people for this reason or that is, in most cases, grossly unfair. I also think that the myth of the self-made man is exactly that, a myth. All of us are born under many conditions over which we had no control or no vote, i.e. where and when we were born, whether we were male or female, the color of our skin, our ethnicity, and our religion.
-Thomas J. White
PIH co-founder Thomas J. White passed away on Friday morning, leaving behind a legacy that has changed the face of global health delivery.
Since its beginning, Tom White has enabled Partners In Health to do “whatever it takes” to improve the lives and health of patients in destitute communities around the world; whether financing the construction of a small clinic in Cange, to purchasing a microscope, or paying $30,000 per patient for PIH’s first multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) program.
“Tom fought all his life against ‘stupid deaths,’” said PIH Executive Director and co-founder Ophelia Dahl. He felt that conditions such as hunger or tuberculosis—which have known cures—should not continue to be the cause of so much human suffering.
The owner of a prosperous construction company, White firmly believed that he couldn’t take his immense wealth with him after his death. In 1983, he found a kindred spirit in Paul Farmer. Farmer, then a young medical student, was initially skeptical of the then president of J.F. White Contracting, Co., who flew to Haiti to meet him wearing bright polyester plaid golf pants. White eventually won over Farmer by his emotional reaction to seeing the poverty and suffering in the Haitian communities that Farmer worked with.
A few years later, White helped found Partners In Health with its first $1 million donation. Since then, White has gone on to systematically give away his wealth—tens of millions of dollars—by selling his company, his assets, and his house to continue supporting PIH projects aimed at alleviating human suffering and poverty. Last month, he sent Dahl a check for $5,000—all he could afford after over two decades of writing checks out to PIH.
“To call Tom's generosity extraordinary would suggest that there is something else to which we could compare it; there is not,” said Dahl. “Tom's generosity was incomparable--revolutionary--and on it we have built our work.“
Today, the Thomas J. White pavilion in Cange is the primary referral site for MDR-TB patients in all of Haiti. And the patients cured by the MDR-TB drugs initially purchased with White’s money helped to provide evidence that the disease could be successfully treated in developing countries, leading to a change in a WHO policy that had previously left such patients to die. White’s legacy extends to programs providing food to malnourished children, tin roofs to villages of leaky shacks, and education and training programs to marginalized communities, and ultimately nearly all projects started during PIH’s first decade of operation. His investment has led to saving the lives of thousands of patients around the world.
“Tom found it physically painful to hear about the suffering of others,” recalled Dahl. To the point that he would sometimes develop physical symptoms himself. She noted that it was fitting that when his time came, White died peacefully and without suffering at his home in Newton, Massachusetts, surrounded by his family and loved ones. He was 90 years old.