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A Tribute to Dr. Ruth Pfau - A German-Pakistani Heroine

von Q. Mahmood

A Tribute to Dr. Ruth Pfau - A German-Pakistani Heroine
A Tribute to Dr. Ruth Pfau - A German-Pakistani Heroine
by Q.Mahmood, Student of BS International Relations Lahore, Pakistan

Her peaceful departure during the loud hullabaloo of a rally reminded me that Pakistan’s strength resides in the work done by heroes like Edhi and Dr. Ruth, who spent their lifes for humanity and the poor and disenfranchised people of Pakistan, and not in the selfish politicos screaming on top of their voices to prove that they hold our destiny in their hands.

Dr. Ruth Pfau, German-Pakistani nun, born 9 Sep 1929, died 10 Aug 2017, helped to eliminate leprosis in Pakistan

Dr. Ruth Katherina Martha Pfau (born 9 September 1929) was a German-Pakistani nun and a member of the Society of Daughters of the Heart of Mary who devoted the last 50 years of her life to fighting leprosy in Pakistan. In 1996, Pakistan was declared by the World Health Organisation to have controlled leprosy, one of the first countries in Asia to achieve this goal. Dr Pfau was born in Leipzig, Germany, on 9 September 1929. She had four sisters and one brother. After World War II when the Russians occupied East Germany, she fled to West Germany along with her family and chose medicine as her future career. In 1949 she studied medicine in Mainz. She was not satisfied with her life. She wanted to do something more: She joined a Catholic Order and eventually ended up in Pakistan.

In the early days of Pakistan, leprosy was considered a taboo rather than a disease and it was almost impossible to open any treatment centres as lepers were generally ostracised. Four determined people with their own initiative pioneered the work in the slum quarters on McLeod Road Karachi; these included Dr Anne Rochs, Mrs Beatrix Menezes, Sr Bernice Vargas and Sr Mary Doyale. The squalid condition of the Lepers Colony, lack of proper drugs, absence of electricity and water were daunting challenges, but thanks to this small group working for humanity, a small dispensary built by using wooden crates came up.

As per her parent mission’s plan, Dr Ruth was supposed to go to India; however, she landed in Karachi by default in 1960 due to a technical visa problem. She was told to get to Karachi first and then to India. In Karachi, she met the mexican sister Bernice Vergas, who was a pharmacist. Sister Vergas invited Ruth to visit the leprosy patient’s colony.

When Dr. Ruth Pfau visited the leprosy patients’ colony, she felt dejected with the situation and took the decision of her life, which would make her the champion of the poor and rejected lepers of Karachi (Pakistani city) and Pakistan. Having little knowledge about leprosy, she studied leprosy before leaving for India for short courses. Her return from India saw the conversion of the hapless dispensary into a small functioning hospital.

As discussed earlier, leprosy was taboo in Pakistani society, Dr. Ruth Pfau saw the appalling condition of lepers, people believed leprosy as an evil predicament ordained by God, would leave the patients to Dr. Ruth and never visit them. Dr. Ruth displayed exemplary care and affection by personal touch and love. She would even make arrangements for the last rites, janaza and burial of abandoned lepers after their death.

Her humanitarian work gradually attracted people of God and some volunteers started becoming part of her team. These included the famous dermatologist, Dr. Zarina Fazelbhoy, who till 1997, remained associated with Dr. Ruth’s programme and centre. Due to her serious illness, she was unable to continue and retired in February 1999. The small seed planted by Dr Ruth in form of a clinic became a shady tree, an eight story hospital. The programme was expanded to other parts of Pakistan as well.

Dr. Pfau would tirelessly travel to far-flung areas of Pakistan for the cause of humanity; managing donations from Germany and Pakistan and expanding the programme at a national level. In 1968, Dr. Pfau persuaded the Government of Pakistan to undertake a National Leprosy Control Programme in partnership with MALC (Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre) and began setting up leprosy-control centres across the country.

Gen Zia appointed her as the President’s advisor on leprosy control, an appointment which she held till 2000. In 1988, in recognition of her services, she was awarded Pakistani citizenship. According to Dr. Pfau, her suggestions were taken seriously and the government of Pakistan cooperated with her. In recognition of her work for humanity she was awarded with a number of national and international awards including; the Order of Merit (1969, Germany, Sitara i Quaid i Azam (1969), Hilal-e-Imtiaz, Hilal-i-Pakistan, Ramon Magsaysay Award (2002), the Jinnah Award (2002) and the Doctor of Science (DSc), honoris causa, Aga Khan University, Karachi (2004).

By 1989, Dr. Ruth expanded her work to Afghanistan, targeting leprosy patients. Her efforts made it possible for Pakistan to be declared leprosy free in 1996.She immensely contributed to the alleviation of hardships of earthquake and flood affected people of Pakistan and Sindh during 2005 and 2010.

Always identifying herself as a Pakistani, she would proudly wear shalwar kameez ( Pakistani dress ) and live a very simple life. She always maintained that if she were to be born again, she would want to be born in Pakistan.
Salute to Dr. Ruth Pfau, the great Human and legend Tribute from the Pakistani Nation.

Funeral of Dr. Ruth Pfau in Karachi

Ruth Pfau was laid to rest after a state funeral. Her casket was carried by Pakistani Army Personnel to St. Patrick Church in Karachi for the last rites. The coffin was draped in the Pakistani flag and covered with Rose petals. 19 gun salutes were given by the Pakistan Army. All armed services chiefs and chief minister of sindh province were present on this occasion. She was a German Doctor and very young when she came to Pakistan. She spent her last fifty years here and devoted herself to a leprosy-free Pakistan and she was the main reason when in 1996 Pakistan was declared the first leprosy free country in South Asia by the United Nations and other international organizations. She was honoured with the highest Pakistani Civil Awards Hilal e Pakistan and Hilal e Imtiaz.

Thomas Trautzsch
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