News from the National Academy of Sciences

January 22, 2018

Paul Farmer to Receive Public Welfare Medal – National Academy of Sciences’ Most Prestigious Award

WASHINGTON -- The National Academy of Sciences is presenting its 2018 Public Welfare Medal to physician, anthropologist, and humanitarian Paul Farmer for “pioneering enduring, community-based treatment strategies that demonstrate the delivery of high-quality health care in resource-poor settings in the U.S. and other countries.”  The medal is the Academy's most prestigious award, established in 1914 and presented annually to honor extraordinary use of science for the public good.

Farmer is co-founder and chief strategist of Partners In Health (PIH), an international social justice and health organization that serves poor communities in 10 countries around the world. A board-certified physician in internal medicine and infectious disease, Farmer is also Kolokotrones University Professor at Harvard University, chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.  

“Paul Farmer’s visionary, holistic approach to caring for those who are so often left behind has revolutionized global public health,” said Susan Wessler, home secretary of the National Academy of Sciences and chair of the selection committee for the award.  “He has inspired a new generation of health practitioners to follow in his footsteps, and his legacy of forging connections between health care delivery, social justice, and policy advocacy will continue for many decades to come.”

“Through innovation and sheer perseverance, Paul Farmer has overcome previously insurmountable obstacles to bring the miracles of modern medicine to people who otherwise may never have experienced them,” said Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences. “He is a powerful force for justice and equality, and his example is one that we all should strive to emulate. Dr. Farmer’s nomination rose to the top from among a particularly competitive field of outstanding nominees.”

Farmer’s lifelong pursuit of providing health care to some of the world’s poorest people began when he was an undergraduate at Duke University, where he worked with displaced Haitian farmers. He attended Duke on a full scholarship and graduated summa cum laude, then went on to receive an M.D. and a doctorate in medical anthropology from Harvard University. Appalled by the lack of health care he witnessed while volunteering in Haiti as a medical student, Farmer co-founded Partners In Health in 1987 with fellow physician Jim Yong Kim — who now leads the World Bank — and activist Ophelia Dahl, the daughter of author Roald Dahl. At the time, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis were rampant in Haiti, and many public health experts were deeply skeptical about whether it was possible to provide quality health care in a country with many challenges and few resources.  

Farmer and his colleagues developed novel community-based treatment strategies that demonstrated that these and other common diseases can be treated appropriately in resource-poor settings. He also played an important role in mobilizing funding to pay for these therapies. PIH’s innovative model of community-based care delivery and providing access to world-class medicines has saved countless lives and is now being duplicated around the world. More recently, in the wake of the devastating 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Farmer and PIH initiated health care programs in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Additionally, PIH recently launched the University of Global Health Equity, a new health sciences institution in rural Rwanda, to train the next generation of African health professionals and global health care leaders. 

As a widely recognized international health expert, Farmer has been featured in numerous news stories, a critically acclaimed documentary film released last year, and a best-selling 2002 book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” by Tracy Kidder. “[Farmer and his colleagues] have offered the world vivid proofs that the entire range of human ailments can be successfully and economically treated in some of the most difficult settings imaginable, in places like Haiti and Liberia, in the slums of Lima and the prisons of Siberia,” said Kidder in a letter of support for Farmer’s nomination.

In 2009, Farmer was named United Nations Deputy Special Envoy to Haiti. His expertise was invaluable to response and recovery efforts after Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake in 2010. He is currently U.N. Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Community-Based Medicine and Lessons from Haiti.  

Farmer has authored numerous books and articles and is the recipient of many awards and honors, including the Bronislaw Malinowski Award from the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) and the Margaret Mead Award from the SfAA and the American Anthropological Association, the Outstanding International Physician (Nathan Davis) Award from the American Medical Association, the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize for Partners In Health, and the S. Roger Horchow Award for Greatest Public Service by a Private Citizen. He is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

The Public Welfare Medal will be presented to Paul Farmer on April 29 during the Academy's 155th annual meeting. More information, including a list of past recipients, is available at

The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit institution that was established under a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It recognizes achievement in science by election to membership, and — with the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine — provides science, technology, and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.

Molly Galvin, Director, Executive Communications
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail: 
Twitter: @theNASciences

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