Remembering Thomas White

  • Posted on: 8 January 2011
  • By: Bryan Schaaf
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Partners in Health (PIH) co-founder Thomas White passed away the morning of January 7th.  Many lives have been saved, and the health of many communities improved, in Haiti and around the world, as a direct result of the financial support he provided to PIH throughout the years.  While White will be missed, he leaves behind an inspirational legacy.  Below is the PIH announcement of White's passing as well as a blog by author Tracy Kidder remembering him. 


Remembering a True Partner in Health


"I think it’s important for us to live in an inclusive world. Excluding people for this reason or that is, in most cases, grossly unfair. I also think that the myth of the self-made man is exactly that, a myth. All of us are born under many conditions over which we had no control or no vote, i.e. where and when we were born, whether we were male or female, the color of our skin, our ethnicity, and our religion." (Thomas J. White)


PIH co-founder Thomas J. White passed away this morning, leaving behind a legacy that has changed the face of global health delivery.  Since its beginning, Tom White has enabled Partners In Health to do “whatever it takes” to improve the lives and health of patients in destitute communities around the world; whether financing the construction of a small clinic in Cange, to purchasing a microscope, or paying $30,000 per patient for PIH’s first multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) program.  “Tom fought all his life against ‘stupid deaths,’” said PIH Executive Director and co-founder Ophelia Dahl. He felt that conditions such as hunger or tuberculosis—which have known cures—should not continue to be the cause of so much human suffering.


The owner of a prosperous construction company, White firmly believed that he couldn’t take his immense wealth with him after his death. In 1983, he found a kindred spirit in Paul Farmer. Farmer, then a young medical student, was initially skeptical of the then president of J.F. White Contracting, Co., who flew to Haiti to meet him wearing bright polyester plaid golf pants. White eventually won over Farmer by his emotional reaction to seeing the poverty and suffering in the Haitian communities that Farmer worked with.  A few years later, White helped found Partners In Health with its first $1 million donation. Since then, White has gone on to systematically give away his wealth—tens of millions of dollars—by selling his company, his assets, and his house to continue supporting PIH projects aimed at alleviating human suffering and poverty. Last month, he sent Dahl a check for $5,000—all he could afford after over two decades of writing checks out to PIH.  “To call Tom's generosity extraordinary would suggest that there is something else to which we could compare it; there is not,” said Dahl. “Tom's generosity was incomparable--revolutionary--and on it we have built our work.“


Today, the Thomas J. White pavilion in Cange is the primary referral site for MDR-TB patients in all of Haiti. And the patients cured by the MDR-TB drugs initially purchased with White’s money helped to provide evidence that the disease could be successfully treated in developing countries, leading to a change in a WHO policy that had previously left such patients to die. White’s legacy extends to programs providing food to malnourished children, tin roofs to villages of leaky shacks, and education and training programs to marginalized communities, and ultimately nearly all projects started during PIH’s first decade of operation. His investment has led to saving the lives of thousands of patients around the world.


“Tom found it physically painful to hear about the suffering of others,” recalled Dahl. To the point that he would sometimes develop physical symptoms himself. She noted that it was fitting that when his time came, White died peacefully and without suffering at his home in Newton, Massachusetts, surrounded by his family and loved ones. He was 90 years old.


Tom's White's Greatest Gift

By Tracy Kidder


I first met Tom White 11 years ago, at his modest office astride the Massachusetts Turnpike. I asked him to tell me about the early days of Partners In Health. He more than obliged me. He told me wonderful stories, some funny, some moving, some a bit of both. The best stories are often their own best explanations, but not always. For me, one deep and lasting mystery lay behind everything Tom told me. Recalling his first meetings with Paul Famer, Tom said, "Paul was a lot younger than me, but he was way ahead of me, on service to the poor." He smiled and went on, with a trace of wistfulness in his voice: "Sometimes I think how much money I used to have, before I met Paul Farmer." Then he added, "But that's all right. They give me a big steak now, and I can only eat half of it." He also said that he intended to leave this life without a nickel, and I gathered that he had already gone a long way toward accomplishing that goal.


Tom had been instrumental in founding PIH and in advising its other much younger founders, and over the years he had given millions and millions of dollars to support its powerful, indeed often seminal projects. He wasn't sure of the exact amount he had given but guessed it might be as much as $50 million.  I wondered at Tom's generosity. Why had he given away all that money, on behalf of strangers who were mostly situated in foreign lands? It seemed like a simple question, but Tom had no answer for it. For myself, I've come to feel that there probably isn't a satisfactory, general explanation for generosity.  But it is enough to know that generosity like Tom White's exists, and not just generosity but generosity that is careful to ally itself with competence and ingenuity and idealism. In a world that often seems to be governed by violence and chaos, this is the greatest gift Tom leaves behind. Unlike too many PIH-ers who have died untimely deaths, Tom lived to a ripe old age. Personally, I feel saddened by news of his death, but mainly I feel grateful to him.



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