HARTFORD, CT, September 2, 2011 – Try as he might – and try he did -- Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder could not uncover any flaws or foibles in Dr. Paul Farmer, who has dedicated his adult life to battling disease, corruption and incompetence in many of the world’s impoverished nations.
Kidder, whom James Trostle, Charles A. Dana Professor of Anthropology, described as “one of the most successful and prolific authors of nonfiction of our time,” knew that if his book was to be credible, he couldn’t portray Farmer as a saint.
“What’s the catch, the dirty secret?” Kidder said he asked himself over and over again. “The truth is that I couldn’t find one and I traveled with him all over the world.”
Indeed, Kidder accompanied Farmer, a Harvard-trained anthropologist and physician, to countries that are among the most undeveloped and poverty-stricken places on earth in order to write Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. The book was required reading for Trinity’s first-year students, who listened to Kidder speak on Friday, the second day of their orientation.
After traveling with Farmer to Haiti, Peru, Cuba and Russia and interviewing family members, friends, former classmates and colleagues, Kidder came away an unabashed admirer of Farmer, who among his other accomplishments founded a nonprofit organization called Partners in Health in 1987.
Although Kidder visited several countries, Haiti is the one that is primarily featured in the book. Kidder explained that Farmer first became interested in Haiti while an undergraduate at Duke University, where he got to know the Haitian farmhands working in the tobacco fields of North Carolina.
“Their lives seemed to be so hidden,” said Kidder. “So Farmer set about reading about all things Haitian.”
Farmer was intrigued by Haiti and spent the next several years commuting between the Caribbean nation and Harvard, where he obtained his medical degree and graduated near the top of his class.
Kidder said he was particularly moved by a story that Farmer told about an American physician who had spent a year in Haiti but was returning to the United States because, after all, he was an American and he wanted to go home.
Farmer linked that account to the story of a pregnant Haitian woman who died of malaria because her sister could not raise enough money to buy the blood that she needed for the transfusion that would have saved her life.
Farmer, who was 22 years old at the time, said that experience made him realize that “it wasn’t enough [for the doctor] merely to say he was an American because we’re all human beings.” After that, Farmer made it his mission to raise money to buy needed blood transfusion equipment.
Moreover, it was then that Farmer realized that “poverty and sickness go together,” explained Kidder, and “that trying to do something about it could enrich [one’s] life.”
Five years later, Farmer founded Partners in Health, which today is at work in 12 countries, where it has opened hospitals, community centers, clinics and schools. Partners in Health employs about 13,000 people, of whom about 100 are from the United States.
Despite Farmer’s ongoing work in Haiti, Kidder said one of the country’s most insidious problems is its cholera epidemic, “which is out of control despite the billions of dollars that have been spent.” According to Kidder, Haiti has less clean water than almost any other country.
Kidder described Mountains Beyond Mountains as “a moral adventure,” a story of countless obstacles overcome. For example, at one point Farmer was banished from Haiti by a military junta only to be allowed to re-enter “after paying an insultingly small bribe.”
Kidder characterized Farmer as a man “born with a constitutional aversion to conventional wisdom.”
Although Kidder wrote Mountains Beyond Mountains in 2003, he said it has had a lasting effect on him – more than any of the other books he has authored – and that he has continued to follow the travails of Haiti and stay in touch with Farmer. “This experience did affect me more than any other and in a lasting way. Once you get in [Farmer’s] orbit, you don’t want to get out.”
Kidder told the students that “it’s good for us to think about things we’d rather not think about. I’d never seen anything like Haiti – such misery, poverty and women giving birth on the side of dirt roads.”
There are lessons to be learned from that experience, said Kidder. Chief among them is that “we are all connected; we are all members of the human tribe.” Another lesson, said Kidder, is that “one small group of people can, in fact, improve the world.”
Kidder graduated from Harvard University and the University of Iowa. He is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Award and other literary prizes. He is the author of Strength in What Remains, My Detachment, Home Town, Old Friends, Among Schoolchildren, House, and The Soul of a New Machine.