A Soul Like No Other

By: Umer Bin Ajmal
Published: October 1, 2017
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Dr. Ruth Pfau: September 9, 1929 – August 10, 2017

Dr. Ruth Pfau was just 31 when she came to Karachi in 1960. A nun of the Catholic order of Daughters of the Heart of Mary, Dr. Pfau dedicated her life to the treatment of leprosy patients in the country through her Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre (MALC).

Thanks to her dedicated services, Pakistan managed to control leprosy in 1996, four years ahead of World Health Organisation’s target. From a modest dispensary where she began treating leprosy patients in Karachi’s Saddar area, Dr. Pfau built a nationwide programme under her leadership. Those she helped cure from the debilitating disease became the initial workforce of this programme.

Dr. Pfau shifted her focus towards blind and tuberculosis patients in 1998 after she brought leprosy under control and made it a core activity of the programme. She was a humanitarian and to this day, her patients and those who worked with her remember her as ‘amma.’

‘Every person has a story. You have to sit with them and listen to their stories,’ were her last words to her team three days before she was hospitalised.


It is quite rare to find people adored and revered by millions in their lifetime. For Pakistan, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah was one such personality. Abdul Sattar Edhi, who lived and died for the poor, was another. And then there was Ruth Katherina Martha Pfau.

Born in Germany, the qualified physician chose nunhood as her calling and Pakistan as her home, where she spent the final 56 years of her life dedicated to nursing victims of leprosy, with Karachi as her base.

At a time when people with leprosy were abandoned by their families and shut out of their own homes, Dr. Pfau embraced them and gave them shelter. And she never shied away from being physically close to her patients, even touching them during treatment, despite knowing that leprosy was contagious.

‘There can’t be another Dr. Ruth Pfau… Nobody can fill her shoes, they are too big to be filled’

Dr. Pfau touched thousands of lives, as in the words of Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre’s (MALC) Chief Executive, Mervyn Lobo, “for her human dignity was more valued than anything else.”

Thus, it was most fitting that Dr. Pfau was granted Pakistani citizenship and was one of only three people accorded a state funeral – Jinnah and Edhi being the other two.

When Dr. Pfau took it upon herself to treat leprosy patients, her major obstacle was ignorance towards the cause rather than resistance.

“Her requests for assistance from the city administration were turned down as they refused to believe there were any victims,” says Salwa Zainab, Manager – Resource Mobilisation at MALC, who worked closely with Dr. Pfau in the last five years.

People who knew her say Dr. Pfau was not just a leader, but a fighter too. She wasn’t demotivated or discouraged by the government’s noncooperation, instead, she started making a database of people who were afflicted and needed attention.

Once an organised structure was put in place and the centre was up and running, more and more victims of leprosy began to seek treatment. When other non-governmental organisations stepped in to contribute, the government also began to provide assistance.

After returning from a training stint in Vellore, India in 1961, Dr. Pfau found in Dr. Zarina Fazelbhoy – a medical practitioner who became Pakistan’s first Muslim leprologist – a friend and colleague in designing a leprosy-control programme and a tutorial for paramedics.

Today, the leprosy control programme is different from what it used to be. As Zainab puts it, “people now want to associate themselves with this programme.”

Dr. Pfau authored four books on her work in Pakistan, one of which is To Light A Candle which was translated into English in 1987.

In 2006, she handed over the managerial and administrative responsibilities of the centre to her team, however, she continued to remain engaged in day-to-day affairs, refusing to call it a day despite her advanced years. Her co-workers say she was very active, mentally alert, and remained in good health till the day she was hospitalised after falling off a chair in December. In fact, when she fell, she was working in Karachi’s Gadap Town.

Dr. Pfau always said that Lord made us all equal, even if we were different, we were equal, so everyone should be treated equally

Dr. Pfau grew up in Leipzig during World War II and witnessed the gruesome effects of war on human life. Her home, too, was bombed during the war. After the Soviets occupied the eastern part of Germany, she escaped with her family to the western part that was under Allied control.

She studied medicine at the University of Mainz, but in 1957, travelled to Paris and joined a missionary order named Daughters of the Heart of Mary, by then having decided to live the life of a nun.

Interestingly, Karachi had not figured in Dr. Pfau’s original plans and her sights were set on social service in Madras. It was during a standard shipping stopover in Karachi in 1960, en route to Madras, that she saw leprosy victims living as outcasts in a segregated locality on McLeod Road. Their plight compelled her to stay on for a while and help out.

It eventually turned out to be a lifelong stopover – ending when she breathed her last on August 10, 2017.

But Zainab has a grouse; she is among many who feel it would have been better if Dr Pfau’s service to Pakistan had been officially acknowledged while she was alive.

“There can’t be another Dr. Ruth Pfau,” says Zainab. “Nobody can fill her shoes, they are too big to be filled.”

An Ambassador of Humanity

Mervyn Lobo, CEO, Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre

What Dr. Pfau has taught us, through her work, her personality and her approach is incomparable. I never saw her treating the disease, in fact I saw her treating the person.

When she worked with people, she blended with them so well that it was hard to tell if she was a foreigner. That was one of the reasons why she commanded so much respect from her colleagues and patients. Whoever came to see Dr. Pfau, left with a lot of admiration and love for her.

Dr. Pfau was truly an ambassador of Pakistan. During her foreign trips, she would highlight the positive side of the country. We are all aware of the reputation we have the world over, but Dr. Pfau would counter it wherever she could.

She struggled for human rights. For her, human dignity was of more value than anything else. She always said that the Lord made us all equal, even if we were different, we were equal, so everyone should be treated equally.

In our patriarchal society, she was a foreigner and a beautiful woman. All these things could have gone against her in the nature of her work, but she not only survived, she helped out others. The entire structure of the leprosy control program was her brainchild.

People often ask us what will happen now that Dr. Pfau has passed away. Interestingly, she had already initiated a transition of MALC’s operations to the local team when she had turned 65, the age of retirement in Germany, and within 10 years, she had completely transferred it.

There is no doubt that a woman of her stature can never be replaced. Dr. Pfau was a credible name all over the world, but despite her death, our foreign and local donors have continued their support to MALC.

MALC, after Dr. Ruth Pfau, is adapting to changing times and has decided to introduce a few changes with the same spirit with which she served the people.

About the Author
Umer Bin Ajmal
is a sub-editor who has studied film and journalism from the Institute of Business Management. He has worked with Dawn and Geo News before joining BOL Media Group.