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Tracy Kidder reflects on the life and death of Dr. Paul Farmer, subject of his “Mountains Beyond Mountains”

Skoll Foundation
Deep Leadership: Interior Dimensions of Large Scale Change

In 2003, Pulitzer Prize-winning Western Massachusetts author Tracy Kidder wrote “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” a biography of the globetrotting Partners In Health co-founder Dr. Paul Farmer. After Farmer’s death in Rwanda at 62 last month, Kidder shared his memories of the celebrated humanitarian with WAMC.

Farmer, born in North Adams, devoted his life to bringing healthcare to those most in need. He co-founded Partners In Health in 1987 after setting up a community-based health project for people with HIV and AIDS in rural Haiti. That’s where Kidder met him in the 1990’s.

“It was pretty clear, here's this guy, once I knew a little bit more about him, who could have had a very cushy and quite an exalted career in infectious disease and just in medicine generally- And in anthropology as well, he already was a pretty accomplished figure and well known in those circles," Kidder told WAMC. "But here he was, spending most of his life and his, I dare say, you know, it was pretty clear that most of his passion was going to a job that looked pretty near impossible, and that would place him in living in a village in a really terribly disadvantaged community in Haiti that had been dispossessed. Farmers, dispossessed by a hydroelectric dam built by Brown & Root of Texas.”

Kidder would capture a portrait of a man driven by the extreme inequity of the world around him in his 2003 biography “Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World.”

“He had a view of America that I just picked up little hints of," said Kidder. "I kind of knew that if I hung around with this guy, as a reporter, he's going to disturb my peace of mind. And that's certainly true.”

Kidder saw that Farmer’s dedication to justice wasn’t limited to his work.

“I had noticed something when I was there in Haiti, with the soldiers in rural Haiti, that they had these saddles made of straw," he said. "And I remember seeing more than one of those saddles make a horse's back bleed. And this was desperate poverty, and horses weren't very well fed, either, of course. And I remember mentioning those to Paul in a kind of nervous way- Gee, those saddles. And he immediately said, ‘Aren't those things horrible?’ And I thought, ‘Oh, I'm allowed to describe what I actually see in this guy's philosophy.' So we can talk. So in that sense, it really was quite liberating.”

Over many years of reporting, Kidder experienced different sides of Farmer. As much as he was compassionate and caring to his patients, Kidder says Farmer could also be temperamental and something of a bully to those outside of the clinic.

“There were other moments where suddenly he gets on my case for having written things that are inimical to the interests of his patients, when in fact, I hadn't written anything yet," said Kidder. "And it left me sort of pissed.”

Both sides of Farmer could emerge in quick succession.

“On the plane, soon after the sort of argument had died away, I confessed that I'd had too much rum in Cuba and I was having some diarrhea – I hope that's okay on WAMC – And he said, and he got very serious – I mean, you could always tell when he was joking when he wasn't – when he said, and it was all doctor then, he said, from now on, 'I want a full report on all of your bowel movements,'" laughed Kidder. "And I felt tremendously relieved, and I suddenly had the feeling, okay, now I understand something else, which is how it feels to be his patient. And that's a really great feeling.”

Farmer had a lifelong love of nature, starting in his childhood when he founded his own herpetology club while growing up in Florida.

“When you go and visit him in Haiti, he'd have to show everything he had planted," said Kidder. "He called that horti-torture. One of my theories about him is, one of my senses is, this was a guy who was in love with the world and all aspects of it. And he was in proportion offended by its deep and horrifying flaws, particularly those that involve cruelty to any sort of living thing.”

Farmer’s unexpected death, attributed to an “acute cardiac event” by Partners In Health, shocked Kidder. He says as he takes stock of losing the man he covered for so many years, his sadness has only grown over the weeks.

“I find it especially difficult to imagine the world without him in it," he told WAMC. "I mean, to imagine, to believe the world doesn't have him in it.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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