The Paul Farmers

by Jim Peterman


Paul Farmer: Our Friend

One defining feature of Sewanee—I use the informal name on purpose—is how interpersonal networks, not connected to formal programs, spring up and define signature aspirations through overlapping interests and projects. These networks get associated with names of people, places, and traditions. By not being connected to formal programs, these names attach to open-ended personal visions and goals, with enough overlap to give the network an understandable identity and shape. In some cases, the network is never publicly acknowledged. It’s just there, and folks recognize themselves, along with others, as tacit fellow-travelers. Sometimes these loose groups get named. If this naming of this network has not yet happened, I will do that now—The Paul Farmers.

Known affectionately as PJ, Paul Farmer passed away at age 62 on Feb. 21. His passing marks the end of his life, but not the culmination of his work—and not the disappearance of the Sewanee network that I attach to his name.

To my knowledge, the only formal connection between the University of the South and Paul Farmer was the honorary degree he received in 2017. A less direct link emerged when the Office of Student Life assigned the book Mountain Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder as summer reading for several first-year classes. This acclaimed book documents Farmer’s early work with his team of like-minded idealists, determined to change the world’s approach to treating infectious disease for the rural poor in developing countries. 

In the past several years—exactly when, I don’t remember—I became a small Paul Farmer. The transition was not easy. I was not part of the early version of this network. As an ethicist, I held that it was not OK for Farmer to ”steal” medications for poor Haitians. I felt the comfort of a philosophical, moral outrage as we discussed this Paul Farmer "problem."

As I became aware of the remarkable projects in Haiti of my colleagues, Deb McGrath, Pradip Malde, and Dixon Myers, who knew Paul and worked with Partners in Health, my views changed. I began to wonder what Paul would do when faced with the limited access to healthcare faced by our local neighbors. Then PJ came to Sewanee to receive an honorary degree. During that visit, along with others interested in public health, I was able to engage him in dialogue about how his Haiti model might work domestically. My ongoing friendship with his sister Peggy, whose spirit and skills have made an indelible impact on me and my work in Sewanee’s Office of Civic Engagement, sealed my link to PJ’s life and work. 

Last year Paul and some of his family joined the Sewanee campus over Zoom to discuss “Bending the Arc.” Seeing him, with his remarkable mother and sister, giving of his time to talk to us about his work at Partners in Health sealed my sense of him, his humanity, and mission to “cure the world.” 

With lives lived well, like PJ’s, death is a transition, not the end. His inspiration and aspirations will live on in Sewanee in the lives of those in our Paul Farmer network, no matter what we call it.