‘Mother Teresa of Pak­istan’ helped curb lep­rosy

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY EMILY LANGER emily.langer@wash­post.com

Dr. Ruth Pfau, a Ger­man nun who be­came known as the “Mother Teresa of Pak­istan” for her decades-long min­istry to the coun­try’s lep­rosy pa­tients, a moral and med­i­cal cam­paign that helped curb one of the most stig­ma­tized dis­eases in hu­man his­tory, died Aug. 10 in Karachi. She was 87.

A spokes­woman, Salwa Zainab, con­firmed her death to the As­so­ci­ated Press. The cause was not im­me­di­ately avail­able.

Dr. Pfau, while not widely cov­ered in the Western me­dia, was renowned in Pak­istan for her ef­forts to stop the spread of lep­rosy, a bac­te­rial in­fec­tion also called Hansen’s dis­ease that when un­treated can cause dis­fig­ure­ment and blind­ness. Around the world, its vic­tims have of­ten been rel­e­gated to “leper colonies” and re­garded as out­casts.

The Ex­press Tribune of Pak­istan once cred­ited Dr. Pfau with hav­ing “sin­gle-hand­edly . . . turned the tide of lep­rosy in Pak­istan and won the grat­i­tude and per­sonal at­ten­tions of peo­ple rang­ing from mil­i­tary rulers to elected min­is­ters to the gen­eral pub­lic.”

Like Mother Teresa, the eth­nic Al­ba­nian nun who be­came known as “the saint of the gut­ters” for her ser­vice to the des­ti­tute of In­dia, Dr. Pfau lived among the peo­ple she cared for and by a vow of poverty.

As a young physi­cian and nun, she had planned to be­gin her mis­sion­ary work not in Pak­istan, but in In­dia, in 1960. Way­laid in Karachi with visa dif­fi­cul­ties, she vis­ited a lep­rosy colony and was so dis­tressed by what she saw that she could not bring her­self to leave.

The fa­cil­ity was over­run by rats and soiled by sewage. Speak­ing to the BBC in 2010, she re­called watch­ing a young man as he “crawled on hands and feet into this dis­pen­sary, act­ing as if this was quite nor­mal, as if some­one has to crawl there through that slime and dirt on hands and feet, like a dog.”

“I could not be­lieve that hu­mans could live in such con­di­tions,” she told the Ex­press Tribune in 2014. “That one visit, the sights I saw dur­ing it, made me make a key life de­ci­sion.”

Un­der Dr. Pfau’s lead­er­ship, that fa­cil­ity be­came the Marie Ade­laide Lep­rosy Cen­tre, the nerve cen­ter of a na­tional net­work of med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als who sought to house, treat and, at times, res­cue vic­tims of the dis­ease. Dr. Pfau re­called col­lect­ing chil­dren who had been stowed away in caves or in cat­tle pens be­cause of their ill­ness.

With sup­port from Ger­man donors, Dr. Pfau and her col­leagues man­aged to bring lep­rosy largely into sub­mis­sion. Since 1996, the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion has con­sid­ered the dis­ease con­trolled in Pak­istan. Her

“When you re­ceive such a call­ing, you can­not turn it down, for it is not you who has made the choice. God has cho­sen you for Him­self.” Ruth Pfau, who was known for her decades-long mis­sion to help lep­rosy pa­tients in Pak­istan

or­ga­ni­za­tion later worked on the treat­ment and preven­tion of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and blind­ness, as well as serv­ing vic­tims of drought, earthquakes, floods and other nat­u­ral dis­as­ters.

Ruth Katha­rina Martha Pfau was born Sept. 9, 1929, in Leipzig, where her fam­ily’s home was de­stroyed in the bomb­ings of World War II. “If I give any sense to th­ese years, it is a prepa­ra­tion to be ready to help oth­ers,” she told the BBC.

Af­ter the war, with Leipzig un­der Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion, Dr. Pfau fled from East to West Ger­many to pur­sue her med­i­cal train­ing, ac­cord­ing to her bi­og­ra­phy on the web­site of the Marie Ade­laide Lep­rosy Cen­tre. She said she nearly mar­ried a fel­low stu­dent be­fore ex­pe­ri­enc­ing what she de­scribed as a call­ing from God.

“When you re­ceive such a call­ing, you can­not turn it down, for it is not you who has made the choice,” she told the Ex­press Tribune. “God has cho­sen you for Him­self.”

She stud­ied medicine at uni­ver­si­ties in Mainz and Mar­burg be­fore join­ing the Catholic or­der the Daugh­ters of the Heart of Mary, the or­ga­ni­za­tion that sent her abroad as a mis­sion­ary.

No in­for­ma­tion on her sur­vivors was im­me­di­ately avail­able.

For a pe­riod, Dr. Pfau served as an ad­viser to the Pak­istani health min­is­ter.

“We are like a Pak­istani mar­riage, ” she re­marked. “It was an ar­ranged mar­riage be­cause it was nec­es­sary. We al­ways and only fought with each other. But we never could go in for di­vorce be­cause we had too many chil­dren.


Ruth Pfau, cen­ter, meet­ing peo­ple in Jati, Pak­istan, in De­cem­ber 2010. She was a Ger­man nun who de­voted her life to stop­ping the spread of lep­rosy in the coun­try. She founded the Marie Ade­laide Lep­rosy Cen­ter in Karachi and is cred­ited by many for bring­ing the dis­ease mostly into sub­mis­sion.

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