Harvard Medical School Professor Paul Farmer Wins 2020 Berggruen Prize

Harvard Medical School Professor Paul E. Farmer became the fifth recipient of the annual Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture, the Berggruen Institute announced Wednesday.

Farmer was awarded $1 million for his work in advancing “global public health equity” and pioneering healthcare systems, especially in Haiti and West Africa, according to the institute’s press release.

The award is given to “thinkers whose ideas have profoundly shaped human self-understanding and advancement in a rapidly changing world,” the release reads. Farmer, who holds the highest faculty rank as a University professor, joins Harvard Law School alumna and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg among the award's recepients.

Berggruen Institute Chairman Nicolas Berggruen wrote in an emailed statement that though the prize jury chose philosophers in the award’s first three years, “the award is so much broader than academic Philosophy.”

“Each laureate was chosen because they have taken their ideas, given them practical power, and improved our world,” Berggruen wrote. “Ideas matter not just because they are held by philosophers but because they act in the world, as evident in the Jury selection of Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and now with Dr. Paul Farmer.”


New York University philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, who chaired the prize jury, wrote in an email that Farmer has taken a “powerful set of ideas” and “put them to use in doing enormous good in the world.”

“The prize seeks to honor the ways in which deep thinking can do great good: Paul Farmer exemplifies that perfectly,” Appiah wrote.

Medical School Professor of Medical Anthropology Arthur M. Kleinman said that Farmer’s contributions toward reimagining global healthcare have allowed for the poorest populations to receive the highest level of care for disorders, epidemics, and pandemics, including tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and Covid-19.

“He has set out the agenda for how we rethink global health in such a way as to see how colonialism and the post-colonial period strongly influence global health institutions and create barriers to the delivery of healthcare to the poorest populations in the world and how these can be overcome,” Kleinman said.

“He richly deserves this award for that great accomplishment,” Kleinman added.

Medical School Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine Salmaan A. Keshavjee described Farmer as a “remarkably kind” and “very thoughtful” individual who “always finds the good in everybody” and whose life has been driven by helping others.

Keshavjee noted that the Prize is conventionally awarded to philosophers, but said Farmer’s work has had philosophical implications that have “led to a big cultural transformation in global health.”

He also said Farmer has questioned “neoliberal ideas” that do not distribute healthcare on the basis of need. Instead, Farmer considers healthcare in terms of ethical implications and human life, per Keshavjee.

Medical School Dean for Clinical and Academic Affairs Anne E. Becker ’83 agreed with Keshavjee, pointing to the way that Farmer’s work straddles academic thought and on-the-ground care.

“He has this rare talent to walk between these two worlds,” Becker said. “He’s written now, what, 11 or 12 books, and to be able to be on the ground, doing the work, and to then take a step back and teach his readership about structural violence, health inequities, and really galvanize, mobilize the next generation toward promoting health justice.”

In 1987, Farmer co-founded Partners in Health, a nonprofit that provides humanitarian aid in 11 countries. Farmer also developed the accompaniment model of care, which provides patients social support during their long-term drug regimens to ensure they complete the full treatment, according to Farmer’s colleague, Barry R. Bloom, who is a research professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Bloom said Farmer “inspires every student that he meets” and has been “one of the greatest stimulators of people going into global health” in the world.

Bloom recalled that in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Farmer volunteered Partners in Health staff and students to serve as contract tracers when there was a shortage of public health staff.

Farmer’s model is “respecting and improving the quality of life of human beings, not just treating the sickness — caring for the person,” Bloom said.

As for the Prize funding, Bloom said he can hazard a guess as to how Farmer will spend it.

“I know Paul Farmer well enough to know the vast majority, if not all of that, is going to go into Partners in Health, rather than into a better lifestyle for Paul and his family,” Bloom said.

Farmer did not respond to a request for comment.

—Staff writer Carrie Hsu can be reached at