Remembering Dr Ruth Pfau and her legacy of compassion

August 18, 2017

As Pakistan prepares to officially honour the life and work of Dr. Ruth Pfau, international tributes have been flowing for the German-Pakistani nun who spent more than 50 years fighting the disease and stigma of leprosy.

Dr. Pfau died on 10 August 2017 at the age of 87. A State Funeral is being held tomorrow (Sat 19 August) with the national flag flying at half-mast.

Born in Leipzig, Germany in 1929, she escaped to West Germany following World War II, where she started a career in medicine. In 1960 she visited a leprosy colony in Karachi and, horrified by what she saw, was moved to start treating those affected with the disease.

It was here that she founded the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre, Pakistan’s first medical centre dedicated to treating the disease. Her mission and medical work expanded over the years.

She raised foreign funds to train doctors and start a network of clinics across the country. The network sought to house, treat and sometimes rescue people affected by the disease. Dr. Pfau recalled to media in later years how she had collected children from cattle pens and caves, stowed there because of their illness.

ILEP member DAHW – the German Leprosy and Tuberculosis Relief Association has proudly supported the work of Dr. Pfau for 56 years.

Her greatest achievement, according to Burkard Kömm, DAHW’s CEO, was controlling the spread of leprosy in Pakistan, through building a meticulous network of leprosy workers. More than 300 Leprosy Assistants were deployed in every district of the country, including the remote desert and mountain areas.

“These health workers visited every home where new leprosy cases were found and examined all contact persons,” says Mr Kömm. “To build up such a network and to maintain it over decades was the key to her success.”

Thanks to these efforts, Pakistan was deemed by the World Health Organisation to have controlled leprosy in 1996.

Widely known as Pakistan’s Mother Teresa’ and the ‘angel of Manghopir’, the BBC reported that while she greatly appreciated and admired the work of the Calcutta-based nun, she stated that in reality there were few similarities between them.

We are not focusing on the disease, we are focusing on the people (patients),” she was quoted as saying. “That’s how you change societal behaviours.” (4)

In 1988, Dr. Pfau was awarded the Pakistani citizenship in recognition for her service to the country and received numerous accolades.

In 1991, Dr. Pfau was also honoured with the Damien-Dutton Award.

Mr Kömm recalls a “very humble person who never liked to appear in the limelight of the press. When she was given an official award, she took the medal immediately to the next melting place to have the valuable metal like gold or silver extracted and sold it to use the money for it to support the people in need.”

Her selfless devotion was widely recognised and appreciated across her adopted country. “Pfau may have been born in Germany, her heart was always in Pakistan,” Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said in a statement.

Tanya Wood, ILEP’s Chief Executive, paid tribute to Dr. Pfau’s extraordinary life. “She was in many ways a woman ahead of her time: in addition to her limitless compassion and dedication to people affected by leprosy, who were overwhelmingly the poor and dispossessed, she was committed to tackling root causes and stopping the spread of the disease.

“The ILEP community expresses deep gratitude for Dr. Pfau’s work to help combat leprosy and is committed to continuing her incredible legacy.”


About DAHW & Dr Ruth Pfau

For more than five decades, DAHW – the German Leprosy and Tuberculosis Relief Association has supported Dr. Pfau’s work, making it the organisation’s most longstanding partner. Twenty years ago, the “Ruth Pfau Foundation” was established within DAHW.

DAHW works with Pakistan-based partners to support the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre and carry out a national comprehensive leprosy elimination programme, and runs community based rehabilitation for people with disabilities.

Find out more