Paul Farmer’s Education: Anthropology to Medicine

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Where did Paul Farmer go to school? How did Paul Farmer’s education set him on the path to becoming the public health care icon he is hailed as today? 

Paul Farmer started out as an anthropology student at Duke University. However, he realized that he had a fundamental conflict with observing people without any attempt at helping them improve their lives. So, he decided to study at Harvard where he could earn a dual degree in medicine and anthropology.

Read more to learn about Paul Farmer’s education, and how it paved the way for his career in global health care.

Paul Farmer’s Education: Time at Duke

Farmer received a full scholarship to study at Duke University. His first semester, he was busy taking in the college experience. It was his first exposure to wealth, as many of the students there came from wealthy families.

Ultimately, Farmer realized that he was more drawn to the values he grew up with, such as helping the underdog and the truly poor, than he was to wealth.

Farmer volunteered at Duke’s Hospital and decided to apply to schools where he could earn a dual degree in medicine and anthropology. He also decided to go to Haiti before starting medical school.

From Anthropology to Medicine

After observing Haitians’ culture and way of life, Farmer realized that he had a fundamental conflict with only observing people without any attempt at helping them improve their lives.

Farmer didn’t anticipate being able to ignore the suffering he saw in Haiti and resume a normal life back in the states. So, while he decided to continue his education and go to medical school at Harvard University, his goal was to  provide health services where they were most needed in Haiti. He’d also be able to earn a Ph.D. in anthropology at Harvard. Paul Farmer thought he’d use this training to better understand historical, cultural, and political impacts on health.

Paul Farmer’s Education: Harvard Years

During his time at Harvard, Paul Farmer visited a town in Haiti’s central plateau called Cange and was shocked at how miserable the local people had seemed.

Farmer conducted a census of the households in town. He learned that there was a high infant and maternal mortality rate. The reason for the infant death was the stagnant water from the local reservoir.

A group of engineers devised a system to transport water from the river that fed the reservoir up the side of the mountain where people could access it when needed through spigots. Once the system was in place, the infant death rate decreased.

Paul Farmer’s thesis for Harvard medical school used evidence to show that AIDS had been brought to Haiti by sex tourists, rather than Haitians having brought it to the US, as was popularly believed in the US. He received his Ph.D. in Anthropology and his medical degree in 1990.

Paul Farmer’s Education: Anthropology to Medicine

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Here's what you'll find in our full Mountains Beyond Mountains summary:

  • How Dr. Paul Farmer came to operate a hospital in Haiti
  • What the connection is between sorcery and tuberculosis
  • How Dr. Farmer's organization is a model for treating patients in poor countries

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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