Master of her own destiny, saviour of others

* Lesser-known details of Dr Ruth Pfau's early life highlight an internal conflict that led her to join a Catholic order

Master of her own destiny,  saviour of others

Lahore: Dr Ruth Katherine Martha Pfau was the master of her own destiny, and by being so, she transformed the destiny of thousands of others affected by Leprosy.

She was born in eastern Germany to protestant parents but chose to join a Catholic order and make Pakistan her home for the most part of her life. She gave up a life of personal relations and worldly pleasures for the sake of public service and through her efforts helped Pakistan control leprosy disease four years ahead of the deadline set by the World Health Organisation.

Details of her life before her arrival in Pakistan are less widely known. The following account of Pfau's early life in Western Europe and her time in Pakistan is based on works done by Agha Khan University professor Dr Rabia Hussain and Zia Mutaher.

Early life, personal relations: Pfau was born to Protestant parents in Leipzig, eastern Germany, in September 1929. Her father Walther Pfau was a manager in a publishing company in Leipzig and she was fourth among her five sisters.

Only a month after her birth, the Wall Street crashed sending the industrialised world and its capitalist economies into a downturn with devastating social consequences. The rise of fascist movements in various European countries was one such consequence of the Great Depression of 1930s. Adolf Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' Party came in power in 1933 on an anti-Semitic and an anti-Marxist platform with an agenda to abolish 'cancerous democracy'. Speaking to Mutaher, Pfau has recalled Nazi regime during her childhood years in the following words, "men flaunting the 'Swastika' on their arms and marching to the tune of drums".

At school, Pfau preferred literature and biology over mathematics. She has recalled how her Jewish classmate Gabi disappeared and never returned. She has also mentioned concentration camps where Jews were sent to be murdered.

Recollections from her adolescent years feature events related to the World War II. She has reminisced about the night of December 4, 1943, when bombing was so severe that she could hear 'the neighbour's children scream and elders pray. She thought she wouldn't survive that night. In the morning, she was surprised to see her family alive. But the upper storey of their house, which contained her bedroom and study, was severely damaged'.

Recalling her teenage days, Pfau mentions presence of American soldiers as 'a momentary relief' for the distressed people of her hometown.

With the onset of Cold War rivalries between the Soviet Union and the United States, Germany got divided into an eastern and western half. By then, her father Walther Pfau had settled in Wiesbaden. He called her to join him there.

Her journey from the eastern to the western half has been documented in the following words, Pfau "carried her teddy bear and few personal belongings … crossed into the 'no-man's land', between the East and the West. She walked for two days and nights, past forests and fields, crossing valleys and gorges during the day and hid behind barns, near small villages at night."

Being a bright student, Pfau got admission into Mainz University. It was there that she met Hermann at a cultural party and the two developed a romantic association. But her life-changing experience came when she met an elderly Dutch lady at Frankfurt.

The woman had been at a concentration camp but was now dedicated to 'preaching love and forgiveness'. Pfau recalls one of her encounters with the woman where she asked her, "How does one become a Christian?" The elderly woman responded, "By praying".

To further explore her questions, she stopped seeing Hermann and started attending intellectual discussions in the philosophy and classical literature department at her university. There she met Roland, a Catholic. But to avoid developing an association with him, she left Mainz and came to Marburg after finishing her clinical examination.

In Marburg, Dr Pfau continued her clinical studies and also joined the Catholic parish. In those days, she was deeply inspired by Romano Guardini's book 'The Lord'. At Marburg, she met Guenther, whom she introduces as a student of philosophy and classical literature. It took her and Guenther months to develop an intimate bond but Dr Pfau internal conflict would prevent it from lasting for too long.

A memorable meeting of the couple, documented in Mutaher's book, took place at the wall of Marburg's famous Landgrave's castle. Guenther has been quoted as saying, "either we commit suicide or become Catholics," hoping that the couple would be considering a marital union. They kept seeing each other for some time but when Guenther finally proposed her, she apologised in the following words, "Sorry, Guenther, but I just cannot, I have a vocation."

Soon she joined the Catholic order of Daughters of the Heart of Mary in Paris, founded by Marie Adelaide de Cicé during the turmoil ridden days of the French Revolution. Her father had not approved of the decision but her mother stood by her side.

Public service: When Dr Pfau had arrived in Pakistan, there were thousands of families affected by this disease, then considered incurable. In 1968, her hospital Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre (MALC) submitted its first proposal to the Government of Pakistan for the establishment of a National Leprosy Control Programme. In 1996, Pakistan became the first country in Asia to have successfully controlled the spread of leprosy.

In her work on the origins of Pakistan's Leprosy Programme, Dr Rabia Hussain has noted that the seeds were planted in 1956 when a group of determined nuns started treatment of leprosy patients in a leper colony in Karachi. Dr Pfau had stopped at Karachi in transit en route India but she was touched by the efforts of this group and decided to stay in Pakistan. Her decision to come to South Asia was motivated by requests received from Roman Catholic authorities in Pakistan and India.

English was the language spoken by most other sisters in the Convent where Dr Pfau stayed in Karachi. She could hardly understand English but because of her basic knowledge of French, she developed a bond with Sister Benerice Vargas, a Mexican pharmacist.

Just weeks into her arrival in Karachi, Dr Pfau was introduced to the Lepers Colony. Off Macleod Road, the colony was really a slum where most patients of the then incurable disease were abandoned by their relatives. It was during this visit arranged by Sis Vargas that Dr Pfau decided to stay back in Pakistan and make treatment of the disease her life's calling.

Though the first dispensary at the colony had been set up in 1956 by Sis Vargas and Mother Mary Doyle, Dr Pfau has been widely recognised for having reorganised treatment facilities at the site along modern lines.

In 1961, Dr Zarina Fazlebhoy, a dermatologist and a close friend of Sis Vagas, became the first Pakistani citizen to join this team of pioneers. The programme was shifted to a hospital in the heart of Karachi in 1963 and the hospital got named as the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre (MALC).

The first technicians' course was started there in 1965. In 1968, a proposal for a National Leprosy Control Programme was submitted to the government. Bureaucratic red tape led to delays in the conception of a plan for achieving Leprosy control. The programme was launched in 1984, and thanks to dedicated efforts by Dr Pfau and her team the target achieved by 1996. By 2008, there were 175 leprosy treatment centre across Pakistan, of which 157 were run by the MACL and 18 by a sister organisation Aid to Leprosy Patients (ALP). Many healed patients were inducted as employees at these centres.

Honourary citizenship and other accolades: The Government of Pakistan gave Dr Ruth Pfau honourary citizenship in 1988.

She was awarded the Sitara-e-Quaid-e-Azam in 1969 and the Sitara-e-Imtiaz in 1979. In 2004, Aga Khan University conferred upon her an honourary degree of 'Doctor of Science'. She received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 and Nishan-e-Quaid-e-Azam in 2011.

German government conferred on her The Order of the Cross in 1968; Commanders Cross of the Order of Merit with Star in 1985; and the Bambi Award in 2012.



Published in Daily Times, August 12th 2017.