Dr. Paul Farmer’s Family Background and Early Life

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Mountains Beyond Mountains" by Tracy Kidder. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What was Paul Farmer’s family like? What role did they play in his life and career as a doctor?

Paul Farmer’s family was big and poor. They lived in humble quarters for most of his childhood, which helped Farmer develop the ability to work and sleep anywhere.

Read more about Paul Farmer’s family and early life.

Dr. Paul Farmer: Family and Childhood

Paul Farmer grew up as one of 6 siblings. His father worked as a salesman, and later as a teacher, while his mother held sales jobs. They moved from Massachusetts, to Alabama, to Florida.

Paul Farmer’s family lived in humble quarters, such as a bus in a trailer park and a sailboat, for most of his childhood. The unconventional close quarters helped Farmer develop the ability to work and sleep anywhere.

Farmer was a bright child and was enrolled in his school’s gifted and talented program. He relished reading books like Lord of the Rings and started his own herpetology club. In high school, he was popular with young women, which his mother said was because he was a good listener.

From Anthropology to Medicine

Farmer accepted a full scholarship at Duke University. His first semester, he was extremely busy taking in the college experience. It was his first exposure to wealth, as many of the students there came from wealthy families, and he had access to the theater and other cultural experiences he hadn’t before. 

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. He observed the farmworkers employed near Duke, many of whom were Haitian and lived in conditions far worse than he had grown up with. He grew fascinated with Haiti and strove to learn all he could. He suspected that Haiti’s long history of being ruled by colonial or imperial interests had hurt its people.

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. He reasoned that spending a year there doing anthropological and medical work would help him decide whether he liked that path.

Dr. Paul Farmer’s Family Background and Early Life

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  • 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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