“Dr Pfau’s services to end leprosy in Pakistan cannot be forgotten. She left her homeland and made Pakistan her home to serve humanity. Pakistani nation salutes Dr Pfau and her great tradition to serve humanity will be continued.” — Mamnoon Hussain President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan
Dr Ruth Pfau, a German-born medical missionary who was hailed as the ‘Mother Teresa of Pakistan’, Pakistan’s female Edhi and a light to Pakistan’s leprosy patients for her pivotal role in containing leprosy in the country, died on 10th August in Karachi. Her peaceful departure reminds us that Pakistan’s strength resides in the work done by heroes like Dr Ruth, who spent her life for humanity and the poor and disenfranchised people of Pakistan. She will be remembered as Ambassador of Humanity.
Dr Ruth Katherina Martha Pfau was born on 9 September 1929 in Leipzig, Germany – a city that was an unrivalled seat of culture, music, publishing and a centre of trade since the days of the Holy Roman Empire. Her father Walther Pfau was a middle-class man associated with the publishing industry. She had four sisters and one brother. During World War II, her home was destroyed in a bombing campaign. When the war ended, millions of people had been killed or gone missing. Her country was finally divided into East Germany and West Germany. She wanted to study but her application for admission to college was rejected. Her father illegally migrated to West Germany and once again got attached with publishing business. When he became well-settled in Wiesbaden, he called his daughter Ruth Pfau in 1948 to come to West Germany. For this, she had to cross the border illegally and while doing so, she was caught but a German soldier let her go. After some time, her entire family migrated to Wiesbaden. Her father wanted her to help him with his publishing business but she had no interest in that. She became a religious person during that time and later in 1956, she travelled to Paris and became a nun and joined the order “The Daughters of the Heart of Mary” despite opposition from her father.
Her experience of looking after the injured soldiers and refugees inspired her to study medicine. For this, she studied in the University of Mainz and afterwards in University of Marburg. Later, she specialized in gynaecology from Bonn University and started her work as an internee. She was sent to southern India; however, she became stuck in Karachi due to a visa issue. She travelled to various parts of Pakistan and across the border to Afghanistan to rescue leprosy patients who were abandoned by their families or locked in small rooms for lifetime. Dr Pfau was appointed the Federal Advisor on Leprosy to the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare of Government of Pakistan in 1979. She went to distant areas of Pakistan where there were no medical facilities for leprosy patients and collected donations in Germany and Pakistan and cooperated with hospitals in Rawalpindi and Karachi. Since that time, her work grew fast, and small treatment centres were established in Karachi and all over Pakistan. Training was provided to paramedical workers and social workers and ultimately health education started to get over prejudices and fear. In recognition of her service to the country, she was awarded Pakistani citizenship in 1988. In 1996, the World Health Organization declared that Pakistan has successfully controlled leprosy, one of the first countries in Asia to achieve this coveted goal.
In 1960, at the age of 31, Dr Pfau decided to devote the rest of her life to the people of Pakistan and their battle against leprosy. In Karachi, she visited the Lepers’ Colony behind I.I. Chundrigar Road. Here she decided that the care of patients would be her life’s calling. She started medical treatment for the leprosy patients in a hut. She later founded “The Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre” in which programmes of preventions from blindness and tuberculosis were also initiated. A Leprosy Clinic was bought in April 1963 and patients from all over Pakistan and even from Afghanistan came there for treatment.
During an interview, when Dr Pfau was asked if given the choice, would she prefer another country to work in? She was quick to respond: “No. In my life, if there was one correction that I could make, it would be to come to Pakistan three years earlier than I did.”
Prime Minister of Pakistan has stated, “Dr Ruth Pfau may have been born in Germany but her heart was always in Pakistan. She came here at the dawn of a young nation looking to make lives better for those afflicted by disease, and in doing so, found herself a home. We will remember her for her courage, her loyalty, her service to the eradication of leprosy, and most of all, her patriotism.”
Chief of the Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa referred to Dr Pfau as an “Ambassador of Humanity”. Ruth Pfau is recognized in Pakistan and abroad as a distinguished human being and has been awarded many prizes and medals.
She was granted Pakistani citizenship in 1988, and numerous accolades for her services. Dr Pfau was also conferred with civilian awards like Hilal-e-Pakistan, Nishan-e-Quaid-i-Azam besides numerous other national and international awards e.g. “The Order of the Cross” from Germany, “The Jinnah Award”, “Marion Doenhoff-Prize”, “Life-time Achievement Award” from the President of Pakistan and “Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science (D.Sc.)” from Aga Khan University.
Dr Pfau authored four books in German about her work in Pakistan and the neighbouring Afghanistan, where she first went in 1984. One of these books, “To Light a Candle” was translated into English in 1987. I will conclude this obituary with her beautiful and impressive saying:
“Leading a life committed to service does protect the soul from wounds. These are the workings of God.”