KARACHI, Pakistan — Sister Ruth Pfau, a German-born Catholic missionary who devoted her life to eradicating leprosy in Pakistan, died Thursday at the age of 87.
A few days prior, she had been hospitalized in Karachi due to complications related to old age.
Pakistani leaders mourned the Aug. 10 loss of the doctor and religious sister, and praised her contributions in fighting the disfiguring disease that usually leads to the ostracization of its victims.
“Pfau may have been born in Germany, her heart was always in Pakistan,” Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said in a statement.
Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussein said Sister Ruth’s dedication to ending leprosy in Pakistan “cannot be forgotten. She left her homeland and made Pakistan her home to serve humanity. Pakistani nation salutes Dr. Pfau and her great tradition to serve humanity will be continued.”
Harald Meyer-Porzky from the Ruth Pfau Foundation in Würzburg said Sister Pfau had “given hundreds of thousands of people a life of dignity”.
Sister Pfau was born in Leipzig in 1929, but her childhood home was destroyed by bombing during World War II. After the war, her family escaped the communist regime in East Germany and moved to West Germany, where Sister Pfau studied medicine.
After joining the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, Sister Pfau was sent to India to join a mission in 1960. On her way there, she was held up due to visa issues for some time in Karachi, where she first encountered leprosy, an infectious disease that causes severe, disfiguring skin sores and nerve damage in the arms, legs, and skin areas around the body.
In 1961, Sister Pfau travelled to India where she was trained in the treatment and management of leprosy. Afterwards, she returned to Karachi to organize and expand the Leprosy Control Program. She founded the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre in Karachi, Pakistan’s first hospital dedicated to treating the disease, which today has 157 branches across the country.
“Well if it doesn’t hit you the first time, I don’t think it will ever hit you,” she told the BBC in 2010 about her first encounter with leprosy.
“Actually the first patient who really made me decide was a young Pathan. He crawled on hands and feet into this dispensary, acting as if this was quite normal, as if someone has to crawl there through that slime and dirt on hands and feet, like a dog.”
“The most important thing is that we give them their dignity back,” she told the BBC at the time.
She was also known for rescuing children with leprosy, who had been banished to caves and cattle pens for years by their parents, who were afraid of contracting the disease themselves.
Sister Pfau trained numerous doctors in the treatment of leprosy, and in 1996 the World Health Organization declared that leprosy had been controlled in the country. Last year, the number of patients under treatment for leprosy in Pakistan fell to 531, down from 19,398 in the 1980s, according to the Karachi daily Dawn.
“It was due to her endless struggle that Pakistan defeated leprosy,” the German Consulate in Karachi posted on Facebook after learning of Sister Pfau’s death.
The nun won many honors and awards for her work, both from Pakistan and Germany. In 1979, the Pakistani government appointed her Federal Advisor on Leprosy to the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare.
The Pakistani government also honored her with the Hilal-e-Imtiaz, one of the highest awards available to citizens, in 1979, and the Hilal-e-Pakistan in 1989. She was granted Pakistani citizenship in 1988. In 2002 she won the Ramon Magsaysay Award, regarded as Asia’s Nobel Prize.
She also authored several books about her experiences, including To Light A Candle, which has been translated into English. Another book by Sister Pfau, titled The Last Word is Love: Adventure, Medicine, War and God, will be available in November.
Sister Pfau’s funeral is scheduled for Aug. 19 at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Karachi, and she will be buried at the Christian cemetery in the city.