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Obituary: serving the unserved

Updated August 11, 2017


Dr Ruth Pfau examining leprosy patients during fieldwork in Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
Dr Ruth Pfau examining leprosy patients during fieldwork in Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

Dr Ruth Pfau, who passed away on Thursday at age 88, had a heart of gold and a soul whose warmth and radiance illuminated the lives of those to whom she had dedicated herself. Her work with lepers, and towards controlling leprosy in Pakistan, stemmed from unstinting compassion and love for humanity.

There are not many examples in the history of mankind where a single soul helped alleviate the suffering of a disease-stricken people shunned by even their relatives. Dr Pfau was born on Sept 9, 1929, in Leipzig, Germany. In 1960, she came to Karachi. Here, by chance, she visited the Lepers Colony on I.I. Chundrigar Road (formerly McLeod Road). Her encounter with men and women suffering from leprosy moved her so much that she decided not to return to Germany.

Pakistan was now her home, the ‘unserved’ her family. She began by treating leprosy patients in a hut in extremely trying circumstances. Her efforts resulted in the setting up of The Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre, and in 1963 a leprosy clinic was established. Today, it’s a fully-fledged hospital on Karachi’s Shahrah-i-Liaquat.

In an article in Dawn on Dr Pfau, senior journalist Zubeida Mustafa wrote about the impact that she had on the leprosy scene in this country: “In 1996 the WHO declared that the disease had been controlled in Pakistan… In 2016 the number of patients under treatment in the country was 531, a far cry from 19,398 in the early 1980s.” This is no small achievement. It had then become inevitable that she was given Pakistani citizenship in 1988. She was also awarded the Hilal-i-Imtiaz and the Hilal-i-Pakistan.

Talking to Dawn, a former senator and federal information minister Javed Jabbar said: “Her life exemplified universalism — the ability to transcend continents, ethnicity, language, distances and serve absolutely with no connection, in a historical sense, the people she cared for. What a set of universal values! At a time when attempts are being made to divide the world on schisms such as sex and nation, to find this universalism is so profound and touches the heart. May her example inspire many others in the future!”

Pop singer Shehzad Roy, who is also known for his social work, said: “When I began my government schools’ reform work, there were two people that I had in my mind — Akhtar Hameed Khan and Dr Ruth Pfau. Earlier, I had no idea how much work she had done. So I started going to the centres that she had set up.

“I spent a whole day with her as well. She was an angel. I must mention here that she didn’t like it when people addressed her as someone who helped lepers. She used to say, ‘Don’t call them lepers’. She didn’t want to use the word ‘leper’.

“I never worked with her, but I’m a fan. She was my mentor. Sadly, our youth doesn’t know about her. Not just that, when I mentioned her name and the fact that she had been ill in front of some journalists, even they didn’t know who she was. I think she should get a state funeral. I’ve taken the initiative and have called up some people for that purpose.”

Social activist Anis Haroon said: “We must pay tribute to her. We must remember her and build a memorial to her. She really served the country. Being a foreign national she saw the misery [of lepers] and decided to stay here to work for them. It’s such a disease that people don’t want to talk about it and are scared of handling leprosy patients.

“She was a humane person, caring and loving, and worked without seeking any laurels.”

Dr Pfau’s last rites will be performed at Karachi’s St Patrick’s Cathedral on Aug 19.

Published in Dawn, August 11th, 2017

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