Who was Dr Ruth Pfau?
September 9th is the day the whole world celebrates the birthday of Dr Ruth Pfau. Why is this woman so famous? Which achievements have gained her this fame? Why is she known as ‘Pakistan’s Mother Theresa’?
On September 9th, 2019, Ruth Katherina Martha Pfau would have celebrated her 90th birthday. The legacy that she left behind is immense. While alive, she received a range of awards, and in 2017, the year of this great woman’s passing, the Civil Hospital in Karachi was renamed Dr Ruth K.M. Pfau Hospital to honour this brave and tireless fighter
Dr Ruth Pfau: the beginning of her incredible life path
Ruth was born in Leipzig, Germany in a family of strong Lutheran believers. During WWII, the house where the family lived was ruined by bombs. After the war, the eastern part of Germany was occupied by the Soviet Union, and Ruth moved to the western part. At that time, the girl already knew that medicine would be her future career: her little brother was very ill and died in front of her eyes.
In the 1950s, Pfau entered the University of Meinz, where she started to study gynaecology. At this time, she encountered a woman who was a prisoner of a concentration camp during the war. After her miraculous survival, the woman decided to dedicate her life to praying, sharing love and forgiveness. This encounter was life-changing for Ruth. She changed her lifestyle entirely and gave more attention to philosophy.
In 1951, Ruth was baptised by Evangelical Protestants but later converted to Catholicism in 1953. Religion gave her a lot of emotional strength and inspiration. Ruth herself used to say that she learned her ‘courage of being human’ from Thomas Aquinas.
In 1957, Pfau took a trip to Paris where she joined a Catholic order known as the Daughters of the Heart of Mary. It was a divine call for her, one she could not turn down once she received it. She was sure that God chose her for himself.
Her joining the order marked the beginning of her tremendously selfless, devoted path that she walked side by side with thousands of patients in Pakistan and across the border of Afghanistan. In 1960, the order sent their new nun to India, but a visa issue happened. She stayed in Karachi and soon started travelling around the country to save patients with leprosy who were let down by their families, who were sentenced to remain locked for their lifetime.
Dr Ruth Pfau, ‘Pakistan’s Mother Theresa’
During her stay in Karachi, Ruth occasionally visited the colony of lepers. The picture she saw hurt her deeply because the conditions there were subhuman and utterly miserable. The brave woman started her work, and it took her three years to set up a clinic where she could provide the necessary treatment for the sufferers. During this time, she used to render poor people help in a small hut next to the colony.
Now, the clinic she established is an eight-storey building and the heart of 157 centres network that spreads across the entire country. It fights not only leprosy but also tuberculosis and blindness. When the first clinic was established, huge numbers of people from the whole country, from Afghanistan, started to arrive there. Serving the unserved became Ruth’s life strategy.
In 1979, Pfau became the Federal Adviser on Leprosy in Pakistan. There was no such a distant corner of Pakistan where she would not go to bring relief and treatment for people suffering from leprosy. With the help of donations coming from Germany and Pakistan, she was able to cooperate with the existing hospitals and create new ones. In 1988, Pakistan awarded her citizenship to recognise her service and continuing efforts to fight the disease.
The decades of endless struggle gave fruits: in 1996, WHO declared that Pakistan was among the first Asian countries to take control over leprosy. The control was obvious. Within 30 years, the number of leprosy sufferers in Pakistan dropped from almost 20 thousand in the 1980s to only five hundred in 2016.
The activities of the wonderful woman were recognised by many nations, regardless of their faith. On September 9th, 1999, the Catholic Archbishop of Karachi served a mass dedicated to Ruth’s 70th birthday. Christians and Muslims attended the mass side by side to honour the service of the heroic lady.
The life of the incredible woman ended on August 10th, 2017, in one of the Karachi hospitals. Due to her advanced age, the glorious nun suffered a range of health issues, such as kidney and heart disorders. Six days before her passing, she was taken to the hospital due to respiratory problems. Her condition only worsening with every passing day; the lady was put on a ventilator, but soon, she refused any life support, and doctors removed it the following day.
The whole country grieved the death of the miraculous doctor. The then-President of Pakistan, Mamnoon Hussain, delivered a speech dedicated to the bravery of the heroic nun who left her homeland and dedicated her whole life to helping people in Pakistan.
Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the Prime Minister, in his speech, thanked Ruth Pfau for her loyalty and patriotism because, in spite of being German-born, the doctor found a real home in Pakistan. The Chief of Army Staff named Ruth the ambassador of humanity. A medical college in Karachi was named after her as Fazaia Ruth Pfau Medical College.
A state funeral was held to commemorate the incredible deeds of Ruth Pfau. Pakistan and Vatican flags were flown in half-mast in front of the Karachi cathedral where the Archbishop was serving the requiem mass. The coffin with her body was covered with the Pakistan flag, and the Pakistan Armed Forces delivered a 19-gun salute for her.
As reported, it was the first state funeral performed for a Christian in the country. After all the ceremonies were over, the woman was buried at Gora Qabaristan, a cemetery for Christians in Karachi.
Dr Ruth Pfau: the recognition and glory
While still alive, Ruth received recognition for everything she had done.
- 1989 – Ruth received the Hilal-i-Pakistan award (the civil award established after the proclamation of independence of the state) for her unceasing helping leprosy patients
- 2000 – Rafiq Tarar, the then-President of the country, praised Dr. Pfau for the establishment of national programs that fought leprosy and tuberculosis
- 2010 – Asif Ali Zardari, the then-President, gave Dr. Pfau the Nishan-i-Quaid-i-Azam award (the civil award established after the proclamation of independence of the state) for her selfless public service
- 2015 – the German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg awarded Ruth the Staufer Medal, the highest award of this state
- 2017 – the Civil Hospital Karachi was renamed Dr. Ruth Pfau Hospital
Dr Ruth Pfau was an example of boundless kindness and selflessness in her struggle with a dreadful disease. Pakistan will never forget the devotion and immense efforts she contributed to saving the nation.