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Ruth Pfau

BMJ 2017; 358 doi: (Published 07 September 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;358:j4104
  1. Ned Stafford
  1. Hamburg
  1. ns{at}

German nun who settled in Pakistan and led fight against leprosy

Credit: German Leprosy and Tuberculosis Relief Association (DAHW)

In 1960 Ruth Pfau, a Catholic nun who was also a gynaecologist and obstetrician, left her native Germany to serve in India. But during a stopover in Karachi, Pakistan, to pick up her visa for India, her plans changed drastically. As she recalled many years later, God intervened.

Instead of travelling on to India, Pfau remained based in Pakistan for the rest of her life. Instead of providing gynaecological care and delivering babies, she fought leprosy. Through her efforts more than 50 000 patients were treated, and in 1996 leprosy in Pakistan was declared “under control” by the World Health Organization. In subsequent years she continued to monitor and treat the disease, which has a long incubation time, and also fight tuberculosis and other diseases of poverty.

State funeral

In recognition of her 57 years of medical and social work, Pakistan’s government honoured her with a state funeral on 19 August and on the same day ordered the national flag to fly at half mast. Her funeral mass was held at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Karachi, and she was laid to rest in the city’s Christian cemetery, Gora Qabaristan. After the funeral, the 1900 bed Civil Hospital Karachi, which is affiliated with Dow University of Health Sciences, was renamed the Dr Ruth K M Pfau Hospital in her honour.

Credit: German Leprosy and Tuberculosis Relief Association (DAHW)

In 1960 Pfau was a member of the Catholic order the Society of Daughters of the Heart of Mary, which had a community in Karachi. Nuns based in Karachi took Pfau to visit an outpatient leprosy …

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