Compared to Dr. Paul Farmer, Mother Teresa was a slacker. But she had better PR. That may change with the publication of Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder's engaging biography of the selfless, tireless, good-humored and still relatively young physician. Kidder, who won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Soul of a New Machine (1981), has been following the 44-year-old Farmer's work on behalf of the poor since 1994.
Born in Massachusetts, Farmer grew up on the Gulf Coast of Florida, where his family lived on an old bus and a salvaged boat. Despite these privations, he graduated at the top of his high school class and won a full scholarship to Duke University. While pursuing his degree there, he became interested in public health policies, particularly as they affected the downtrodden. Farmer began working with the poor in Haiti in 1983, the year before he entered Harvard Medical School. There, he met Ophelia Dahl, the daughter of actress Patricia Neal and writer Roald Dahl, who was working as a volunteer at an eye clinic. She would later bring her considerable administrative skills to the service of Farmer's far-ranging vision. Farmer's passion for helping the helpless also caught the attention of Boston philanthropist Tom White, who donated money for a clinic in the central Haitian village of Cange and set up the Partners in Health charity to help Farmer fund his projects. For his part, Farmer contributed both his own income and around-the-clock attention to his patients, whether in Boston or Haiti. On the faculty at Harvard, he soon rose to the post of professor of medicine and medical anthropology. Kidder accompanies Farmer as he trudges across the unforgiving Haitian countryside to care for patients or as he attends public health conferences and strategy sessions in Russia, Cuba, France, Peru, Canada and Mexico. Farmer's amalgam of commitment, genius and energy constitutes a near irresistible force, and Kidder's wonderful book is an antidote for cynics.