Dr Ruth Katherina Martha Pfau HI, RM, HP, NQA, SQA (9 September 1929 – 10 August 2017) was a German-born Pakistani physician and nun of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. She moved from Germany to Pakistan and devoted more than 50 years of her life fighting leprosy in Pakistan.
Known as “Pakistan’s Mother Teresa“, Pfau contributed in establishing 157 leprosy clinics across Pakistan that treated over 56,780 people.
Pfau was born on 9 September 1929 in Leipzig, Germany, to Lutheran Protestant parents. 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. During this time, Pfau met several times with a Dutch Christian woman, who was a concentration camp survivor and currently dedicated her life to “preaching love and forgiveness”. After “her life-changing experience”, Pfau left “a romantic association” with a fellow student, got involved in discussions in the Mainz’s philosophy and classical literature department. After completing her clinical examination, Pfau moved to Marburg to carry on her clinical studies. Then she was baptized as an Evangelical Protestant in 1951, before her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1953. Pfau admitted that she learned the “courage of being human” from Saint Thomas Aquinas through Josef Pieper‘s writing. There she joined a Catholic parish, and she was greatly influenced by Romano Guardini‘s The Lord in this period.
In 1957, she travelled to Paris and joined the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, a Catholic order. She said, “When you receive such a calling, you cannot turn it down, for it is not you who has made the choice. … God has chosen you for himself.” The order later sent her to southern India; however, in 1960, 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
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. According to the Dawn, the number of leprosy cases nationwide dropped significantly from 19,398 in the early 1980s to 531 in 2016.
On 9 September 1999, Archbishop of Karachi, Simeon Anthony Pereira celebrated a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral to celebrate Sr. Pfau’s 70th birthday, which was attended by Christians together with Muslims.
Awards and recognition
Dr. 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.
On 19 August 2017, Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah announced renaming of the Civil Hospital Karachi to Dr. Ruth Pfau Hospital as an acknowledgment of “selfless services of the late social servant”.