5 Quotes From Paul Farmer That Inspire Us

Words from the late PIH co-founder that capture his spirit, vision

Posted on Apr 7, 2022

Paul Farmer walks with Musa Bangura, head of laboratory services for PIH-Sierra Leone, at Koidu Government Hospital.
Paul Farmer walks with Musa Bangura, head of laboratory services for PIH-Sierra Leone, at Koidu Government Hospital. Photo by John Ra / PIH.

As we remember the life and legacy of Dr. Paul Farmer, we are guided and grounded by his words—tender and powerful, simple and profound.

These five quotes offer just a glimpse into the wealth of knowledge and insights Farmer shared with all of us, captured in books, speeches, and conversations throughout his life.

His words live on in our hearts and minds, especially as we put his teachings into practice every day at Partners In Health and work toward a world where health care is free and accessible to all patients, everywhere.

Here are five quotes from Farmer that continue to inspire us:

1. “Medicine should be viewed as social justice work in a world that is so sick and so riven by inequities.”

Farmer shared this insight in an interview with The Boston Globe. Throughout his life, he aimed to bring the worlds of medicine and social justice together. Guided by what he called “expert mercy,” an “alchemy that mixes compassionate fellow feeling with interventions that save the sick,” Farmer’s vision for the delivery of high-quality care was both medical and moral—and continues to drive forward PIH’s mission.

2. “If access to health care is considered a human right, who is considered human enough to have that right?”

These words appear in Farmer’s book Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor, which examines the social and economic forces that are responsible for illness and death among the world’s poor. Farmer’s dedication to the principles of universal health care and social medicine guides PIH’s work, as we tackle the root causes of health inequities and focus our energy against unjust policies and systems in service of the patients who suffer from them.

3. “To pull a million people out of poverty in the last several years, to build stable institutions where none existed—to me, that is about hope and it’s about rejecting despair and cynicism. Those are the two biggest dead ends we’ve got: despair and cynicism.”

Farmer shared these words in Bending the Arc, an award-winning documentary that tells the story of PIH and the movement for global health equity he and PIH leaders helped ignite. A defiant optimism marked Farmer’s life and work, as he inspired millions with his refusal to give in to cynicism and his dedication to the vision of a world where every patient has access to quality care. That vision was called “unrealistic” by some global health leaders, but it led to worldwide access to antiretroviral drugs for HIV patients, multidrug-resistant tuberculosis care in Peru, a world-class teaching hospital in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, and many more revolutionary projects that have saved millions of lives.

4. “Since I do not believe there should be different recommendations for people living in the Bronx and people living in Manhattan, I am uncomfortable making different recommendations for my patients in Boston and in Haiti.”

These words, shared in an interview with Satya magazine in April 2000 on the HIV epidemic, illustrate Farmer’s lifelong commitment to global health equity and the belief in a “preferential option for the poor”—the notion that patients living in poverty should receive the best quality of treatment and care available and such care should rectify the historic and ongoing structural violence that left communities impoverished and health systems weakened.

5. “With rare exceptions, all of your most important achievements on this planet will come from working with others—or, in a word, partnership.”

Farmer shared this reflection in his book To Repair the World. The book, which is a collection of Farmer’s speeches, casts a lack of health care access and other issues as “failures of imagination”—a phrase Farmer often used to describe world leaders’ apparent inability to fix unjust policies and systems. In the speech, Farmer calls for partnership as the path forward in the face of poverty, climate change, and other seemingly intractable global issues. He was proud that “Partners” was central to the name of the organization he co-founded with his lifelong best friends, Ophelia Dahl, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, Todd McCormack, and Thomas J. White. Throughout his life, Farmer exemplified this spirit of partnership, accompanying patients and doctors, students and drivers, and presidents and philanthropists alike.

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