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With measures of wit, seriousness and a challenge to think imaginatively about serious problems, Dr. Paul Farmer addressed the 2012 graduates of Northwestern University on June 15.
A world renowned medical anthropologist and physician, Dr. Farmer co-founded Partners in Health with Thomas White and Todd McCormack, along with support from Ophelia Dahl and Jim Yong Kim. Mr. Kim was recently named President of the World Bank.
Dr. Farmer alluded to Stephen Colbert, his predecessor at the lectern in 2011, and jested with Northwestern president Morton Schapiro.
The theme of Dr. Farmer’s talk was failure of imagination. He spoke about his first experience in Haiti 30 years ago, where he became aware not just of inequities in health care but of the expectation that they would be the norm.
“I ended up in a sleepy market town in central Haiti, living in the rectory of an Episcopal church and working in a hot, overcrowded clinic,” he said.
“It didn’t take an M.D. to see that excellent medical care was not likely to result from a five-minute exchange between a Haitian doctor with no lab” and medicine poured into stoppered vials that might at best have a placebo effect.
Though not yet 30 years old, the Haitian doctor at the clinic was already “tired of working in such a shabby facility” and apparently resigned to the disparity between the care his patients received and that given to the wealthy.
“He had been schooled in scarcity and failure. … I had been schooled in plenty and success,” Dr. Farmer said. Such lowered expectations about the quality of health care given to the poor were mirrored by international experts at the time, he added.
Immediacy and imagination, Dr. Farmer said, were two things he hoped the graduates would take from his speech.
“Try to counter failures of imagination” he said to the new graduates; “seek to imagine or re-imagine solutions to the greatest problems of our time, harness the power of partnerships.”
Failures of imagination are a “risk for all of us. … More difficult health and development problems … cannot be left for a better day,” said Dr. Farmer.
Partners in Health now has 12 hospitals and clinics in Haiti and 75 hospitals and clinics all over the world.
Dr. Farmer received an honorary doctor of science degree from Northwestern. Other honorees were Joan Ganz Cooney, cofounder of the Children’s Television Workshop, who received a doctor of humane letters; Martha Minow, dean and professor of Harvard Law School, received a doctor of laws; and William D. Nix, professor emeritus of engineering at Stanford University. Trustee Newton Minow presented the doctor of laws to his daughter Martha.