Kidder interviews Farmer’s friends from college. They recall that Farmer was warm, charismatic, and extremely clever. He studied abroad in Paris, where he took a class with the great anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. During his time abroad, he learned to speak French fluently.
Farmer’s intellectual accomplishments grow and grow. Kidder makes it clear that Farmer could have pursued a brilliant career in academia or research, probably becoming rich and famous without ever sitting with a real patient.
Farmer cites the 19th century doctor Rudolf Virchow as one of his biggest influences. Virchow is best remembered for being the first doctor to propose the theory of cellular pathology, now a cornerstone of biology, but he also designed Berlin’s sewer system, changing it to the cleanest city in Europe. Like Farmer, Virchow was a wunderkind (young prodigy), doing much of his work before the age of 30. Virchow was also one of the founders of epidemiology (the study of diseases), and used his knowledge to minimize the outbreak of deadly disease throughout Europe.
Although Virchow is mostly famous for his discovery of cellular pathology, Farmer also admires him for his humanitarian work. As a young man, Virchow translates his energy and intelligence into public works projects. Likewise, Farmer’s knowledge of medical history and city planning gives him a novel perspective on Haiti. Although the challenges facing Haiti seem severe, they’re not so different from those that faced Germany 200 years ago.
Farmer was intensely political at Duke. In 1980, he was struck by the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, who was murdered for practicing “liberation theology” and supporting the emancipation of the poor. Shortly afterwards, Farmer met Julianna DeWolf, a nun who did impressive charity work in Haiti. DeWolf inspired Farmer to read more about Haiti, and to visit Haitian immigrants living in North Carolina.
Farmer had plenty of role models along the way, as his elite education and love for reading exposed him to the greatest minds—and humanitarians—of his time. It’s interesting that Farmer gravitates to religious figures like DeWolf and Romero: although he has his doubts about the existence of God, he has enormous respect for clergy members who actually work with the poor and embody Christian charity—another argument for Farmer’s “saintliness.”
Kidder gives some information about Haitian history. In 1791, there was a massive slave revolt in Haiti, resulting in the country’s emancipation from France, its colonial ruler. In 1804, Haiti became the first black republic in the world. For the next 200 years, democracy in Haiti was highly unstable, and for several decades, the U.S. Marines essentially ruled the country. And yet despite its tragic history, Haiti has its own proud culture, including Creole, the Haitian language that was born from the French practice of separating slaves in the New World. Many Haitians also celebrate the Voodoo religion, which includes aspects of both Islam and Catholicism.
In order to be a good doctor, Farmer maintains, one must understand one’s patients, and this means understanding their culture and rich history. Farmer has a lot of respect for Haiti because it’s been through so much adversity: slavery, hurricanes, civil wars, uprisings, etc. While most academics become increasingly withdrawn during the course of their research, Farmer’s research into Haitian history has the opposite effect: it inspires him to go out and experience the country first-hand.
In 1983, Farmer won a prize of 1,000 dollars for an essay about Haitian art. He decided to use the money to travel to Haiti and help the sick. He flew to Port-au-Prince, the capital. At the time, the country was ruled by Jean-Claude Duvalier, the so-called “Baby Doc,” a notoriously ruthless dictator. Farmer was horrified to find that most of the tourists in Haiti were there to pay Haitian locals for sex. Farmer volunteered at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital, while also working at the charity Eye Care Haiti.
Farmer’s first impressions of Haiti are awful. He sees that for many Americans, the country is a place to go to have cheap, anonymous sex—wealthy tourists essentially exploiting the poor, oppressed populace just because they can. It’s significant that Farmer starts work at a hospital named for Albert Schweitzer—another famous doctor and philanthropist, who was a brilliant organist and theologian before he gave up his successful life to start hospitals in West Africa.