Global Health Pioneer Ophelia Dahl to Receive 2023 Radcliffe Medal

The human rights advocate co-founded Partners In Health in 1987.

Ophelia Dahl, standing in front of a bookshelf with her arms crossed

Ophelia Dahl, a human rights and social justice advocate who co-founded the international public health nonprofit Partners In Health, will receive the 2023 Radcliffe Medal on May 26, the highest honor of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. 

In a news release announcing the award this morning, Radcliffe dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin cited Dahl’s “unfailing optimism, clarity of vision, and unsurpassed ability to get the work done.” Throughout her career, Dahl has rejected conventional pessimism about seemingly intractable problems. “She pushes us to see the world and our own moral obligations in powerful new ways,” Brown-Nagin said, “and she has challenged global institutions to rethink their approach to pursuing the long-promised and still-elusive universal right to health.”

Dahl co-founded Partners In Health (PIH) in 1987, alongside Jim Yong Kim, Todd McCormack, Thomas J. White, and the late Paul Farmer. A pioneering physician and humanitarian, Farmer was Kolokotrones University Professor and chair of Harvard Medical School’s department of global health and social medicine. He died from a heart attack last February in Rwanda, where he had been working with medical students in the Butaro province. Farmer and Dahl first met in 1983, when she was an 18-year-old volunteer in Haiti and he was just out of college, working in a village clinic; five years later, PIH was launched in the country’s rural Central Plateau. The organization now serves millions of patients in 11 countries on four continents, providing care in regions that had long been written off. Its community-based model helped redefine the possibilities for public health in impoverished areas, demonstrating that HIV, drug-resistant tuberculosis, and other diseases that afflict the poor can be treated effectively. 

Dahl served as PIH’s executive director from 2001 to 2015, and now chairs its board of directors. Under her leadership, revenue increased tenfold, to $100 million per year, and the organization navigated a series of existential challenges. She often writes, speaks, and teaches about the health and rights of the poor, and about “accompaniment,” which she has described as “walking shoulder to shoulder through whatever challenges arise.” Dahl also helps lead the Roald Dahl Literary Estate, which manages the works of her late father, writer Roald Dahl, and she is also a trustee at Wellesley College, her alma mater. In 2005, she and her PIH colleagues were awarded the Hilton Humanitarian prize, and in 2006, she and Farmer received the Union Theological Seminary’s Union Medal. Dahl features prominently in Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, by Tracy Kidder ’67 (excerpted here), which brought international attention to PIH’s work; and in the 2017 documentary Bending the Arc, about the organization and its co-founders.

Dahl will receive the Radcliffe Medal at the end of a Radcliffe Day focused on women leaders in global health. The program will begin with a panel featuring Agnes Binagwaho, senior lecturer on global health and social medicine; Natalia Kanem ’76, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund; and Reema Nanavaty, executive director of the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India. The panel will be moderated by Jacqueline Bhabha, FXB director of research and professor of the practice of health and human rights at the Harvard School of Public Health, the Smith Jr. lecturer at Harvard Law School, and a public-policy lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School. 

That discussion will be followed by remarks from Chelsea Clinton, a global health advocate who sits on the board of the Clinton Foundation, and then a keynote conversation between Dahl and PIH trustee John Green, a writer and philanthropist whose novels include The Fault in Our Stars and other best-selling works. Brown-Nagin will conclude the program by formally awarding the Radcliffe Medal. 

Read more articles by Lydialyle Gibson
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