Sister Dr Ruth Katherina Martha Pfau (9 September 1929 – 10 August 2017) was a German-Pakistani physician and nun of the Society of Daughters of the Heart of Mary. She devoted nearly 50 years of her life to fighting leprosy in Pakistan.
Pfau was born in Leipzig, Germany, on 9 September 1929. She had four sisters and one brother. Her home was destroyed by bombing during World War II. Following the post-war Soviet occupation of East Germany she escaped to West Germany along with her family, and chose medicine as her future career. During the 1950s, she studied medicine at the University of Mainz.
She joined the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, a Catholic order, which later sent her to southern India; however, a visa issue meant she became stuck in Karachi. She travelled to various parts of Pakistan and across the border to Afghanistan to rescue patients who were abandoned by their families or locked in small rooms for a lifetime.
Life in Pakistan
“Not all of us can prevent a war; but most of us can help ease sufferings — of the body and the soul.”
— Ruth Pfau
In 1960, aged 31, she decided to dedicate the rest of her life to the people of Pakistan and their battle against leprosy outbreaks. While in Karachi, by chance she visited the Lepers’ Colony behind McLeod Road (now I. I. Chundrigar Road) near the City Railway Station. Here she decided that the care of patients would be her life’s calling. She started with medical treatment for the leprosy patients in a hut in this slum. The Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre was founded (which later branched out into tuberculosis and blindness prevention programmes) and social work for the leprosy patients and their family members was started by Dr. I. K. Gill. A Leprosy Clinic was bought in April 1963 and patients from all over Karachi, Pakistan, and even from Afghanistan came for treatment.
In 1979, she was appointed as the Federal Advisor on Leprosy to the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare of Government of Pakistan. Pfau went to distant areas of Pakistan where there were no medical facilities for leprosy patients. She collected donations in Germany and Pakistan and cooperated with hospitals in Rawalpindi and Karachi. In recognition of her service to the country, she was awarded Pakistani citizenship in 1988.
Due to her continued efforts, in 1996, the World Health Organisation declared Pakistan one of the first countries in Asia to have controlled leprosy. On 9 September 1999 Archbishop Simeon Anthony Pereira of Karachi celebrated a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral to celebrate Sr. Pfau’s 70th birthday.
Early morning on 10 August 2017, around 04:00 am PST, Pfau died at the Aga Khan Hospital in Karachi after being admitted there on 4 August 2017. She was put on a ventilator after her condition worsened on 6 August. Pfau had been dealing with several health problems due to her advancing age, including heart disease, for which she has been undergoing treatment for several years.
Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi announced in a statement that a state funeral would be held for her at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Karachi on 19 August.
Some Forgotten Memories
Despite her admiration for Pakistani military rulers, Pfau recalls that she was most jubilant when the Berlin Wall was chipped away in 1990, heralding the triumph of democratic values. However, unlike many Germans of the era, she could not secure a piece of the fateful wall as a memento as she was stationed in Islamabad.
“I was a happy 30-year-old when the Berlin Wall fell and democratic values triumphed. But democracy needs education and education is barely given any attention in Pakistan. So I don’t know how far democracy will succeed here.”
Apart from Germany’s reunification, the collapse of this historic barrier also brought Pfau the glad tidings of the end of a war — the World War II — which had scarred her teenage years. She recalls the bombing of her hometown, Leipzig, and her risky crossing of the border into West Germany in order to study medicine and become a doctor.
“Those who have not seen a war of such a scale cannot imagine the horrors. They cannot imagine the scalded and maimed bodies — bodies which need medicines and bandages,” she says. In fact, she attributes her desire to become a doctor to the horror she witnessed in her early years.
Awards and Recognition
Sister Pfau is recognised in Pakistan and abroad as a distinguished human being and had been awarded many awards and medals. On 23 March 1989, Pfau received the Hilal-i-Pakistan award presented by the then-President of Pakistan Ghulam Ishaq Khan at the President House for her work with leprosy patients.
Speaking at a function in Islamabad on 30 January 2000, to mark the 47th World Leprosy Day, the then-President Rafiq Tarar praised Pfau, who built up the National Leprosy Control Program in Pakistan, for working not only for those afflicted with leprosy, but also for those with tuberculosis. In 2006, Pfau was honoured as the ‘Woman of the Year 2006’ by City FM89.
On 14 August 2010, on the occasion of Pakistan’s Independence Day, the then-President of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari awarded Pfau the Nishan-i-Quaid-i-Azam for public service. She was hailed as Pakistan’s “Mother Teresa” after her work towards helping people displaced by the 2010 Pakistan floods. In 2015, Pfau was awarded the Staufer Medal, the highest award of the German state of Baden-Württemberg.