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Renowned Physician, Medical Anthropologist, and Humanitarian to Speak at 2011 College Commencement
May 17, 2011
An award-winning physician, medical anthropologist, and co-founder of the non-profit health care group Partners in Health (PIH), Paul Farmer has traveled the world in an effort to remedy some of the today’s greatest humanitarian challenges—disease, hunger, and the various medical, economic, and social conditions that afflict non-industrialized nations. After an intense vetting process, Farmer has been selected as the 2011 Georgetown College commencement speaker. 

Farmer is best known for devising solutions to medical and public health problems that are practical and culturally sensitive. For decades his work has taken him into the heart of Haiti, and in 2003 he was the subject of Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Tracy Kidder’s bestseller Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World. After reading this book, College Dean Chester Gillis was moved to invite Farmer to speak at commencement.
“After I read it, I said, ‘This guy will be inspirational. This is somebody our students should know about,’” Dean Gillis said. “Many of them probably do—they may have read the book. But many of them won’t.” Even more impressive than Farmer’s humanitarian ventures, Dean Gillis said, is the spirit in which he has undertaken them. Impressed by the rigor and discipline that defines Farmer’s life, Dean Gillis noted that his character aligns perfectly with the motto of a Georgetown education. Farmer, he said, is a man for others. 
“I just knew he was the right person for Georgetown. He exemplifies who we are and our Jesuit [and] Catholic values,” Dean Gillis said. “This is a guy who has devoted his life to the poor and to the development of a better medical system for Haiti and [its] people. He’s done magnificent things,” he continued. “Just heroic work.”
Associate Professor of BiologyHeidi Elmendorf, who at the graduation ceremony will read the honorary citation recognizing Farmer for his efforts, had similar praise. “He has on-the-ground local impact, but he has also shaped actual protocols for diseases and raised the visibility of one of our most underprivileged groups of people,” she said. “He has helped change policy. What he has done in Haiti, Beirut, Russia—the way we treat tuberculosis around the world has changed.”
In securing Farmer as commencement speaker, Dean Gillis traveled a circuitous route. For months he tried reaching Farmer personally—to no avail. “All these people have people,” Dean Gillis explained, “someone vetting their correspondence.” In the end, the boost Dean Gillis needed came in the form of College donor Scott Malkin, who had first convinced the dean to read Mountains Beyond Mountains. Malkin, chairman and CEO of London-based company Value Retail, intervened in a way as instrumental as it was lucky.
“I happened to mention that I had been trying to get Paul Farmer but that I was having no success. I think I just wrote [the email] casually. And [Malkin] wrote back or called and said, ‘Paul Farmer’s a good friend of mine. I spent last weekend with him in Boston. Do you need help?’” Dean Gillis recalled. “Within a week after that, Dr. Farmer’s office contacted us and said he’d be happy to speak at Georgetown’s graduation.”
It is the hope of Dean Gillis, faculty, and staff within the College that Farmer will help inspire the Hilltop’s latest graduates to be similar citizens of the world. Farmer is just the person, Elmendorf said, to tell the young world-bound graduates about the importance of using their education, skills, and ambition to create positive social change. 
“Commencement is a point in time in which our students are wrapping up their lives and looking ahead and looking to the sort of impact that they’ll have on the world. It’s a critical transition moment,” Elmendorf said. “When we look at Partners in Health through the Georgetown lens, we very much see a commitment that resonates around social justice—‘Cura Personalis’—not just improving the health of people as individuals, but improving the overall well-being of a community. 
It’s important to see that sort of life is possible.”
--Brittany Coombs
Photos from top courtesy of Partners in Health: Dr. Paul Farmer, photo by Behna Gardner; in Haiti, by Mark Rosenberg; at a Haitian satellite clinic, by Mark Rosenberg. 
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