Who would have expected that Ruth Pfau, born in the German city of Leipzig (where the famous composer Johann Sebastian Bach lived and died) shall be laid to rest in far away Pakistan, her home away from home for close to five decades. Ruth Katherina Martha Pfau, who lived in Pakistan for more than 50 years, set up 157 leprosy clinics across the country. Her efforts are considered key in brining the disease under control in 1996. Pfau was often compared to Mother Teresa (now Saint Teresa of Kolkata) — the nun, born in what is today Macedonia, who ministered to the poor in India. Thanks to Pfau’s efforts, leprosy, a disfiguring and stigmatising ailment also known as Hansen’s disease, is now prevented and even cured after early diagnosis in Pakistan.

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Less than four decades after Dr Pfau (pronounced fow) began her campaign to contain leprosy, a mildly contagious bacterial infection, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared it under control in Pakistan, ahead of most other Asian countries (although several hundred new cases are still reported there annually).

Dr. Pfau, who had converted to Roman Catholicism and become a nun, discovered her calling to help lepers coincidentally.

In 1960, she was waylaid in Pakistan by a passport foul-up en route to a posting in India by her Roman Catholic order, the Society of Daughters of the Heart of Mary. By chance, she visited a leper colony in Karachi, where she met one of the thousands of Pakistani patients afflicted with the disease. “He must have been my age — I was at this time not yet 30 — and he crawled on hands and feet into this dispensary, acting as if this was quite normal,” she recalled in an interview in 2010, “as if someone has to crawl there through that slime and dirt on hands and feet ...”

The encounter stunned her. “I could not believe that humans could live in such conditions,” she told Pakistani newspaper the Express Tribune in 2014. “That one visit, the sights I saw during it, made me make a key life decision.”

Pfau joined the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre, opened in 1956 in the Karachi slums and named after a founder of the order of nuns that ran it. She soon transformed it into the hub of a network of 157 medical centres that treated tens of thousands of Pakistanis infected with leprosy.

Funded mostly by German, Austrian and Pakistani donors, the centre and its satellite clinics also treated victims of the 2000 drought in Balochistan, the 2005 earthquake and devastating floods in 2010. Once leprosy was declared under control, the centre also focused on tuberculosis, blindness and other diseases and on disabilities, some caused by landmines in war-torn Afghanistan.

Second World War survivor

As a teenager, she barely survived Allied bombing, which severely damaged her home during the Second World War. Pfau was inspired to become a doctor shortly after the war, when her baby brother became ill and died. She escaped from the Soviet Occupation Zone in 1948 and followed her father to Wiesbaden, in West Germany, to study gynaecology at the University of Mainz and in Marburg.

At college, after meeting an elderly Christian concentration camp survivor who had devoted the rest of her life to preaching love and forgiveness, she rejected a marriage proposal from a fellow student. She was baptised in the evangelical tradition, converted to Catholicism and joined the Society of Daughters of the Heart of Mary in 1957.

After coming to Pakistan, she organised a leprosy-control programme and, with Dr Zarina Fazelbhoy, one of her many collaborators, ran a tutorial for paramedics.

Even after she gave up the directorship of the centre in 2006, she lived in a single room there, rising at 5am to fulfil her obligations as a nun and from 8am tending to patients and running interference with government bureaucrats.

“We are like a Pakistani marriage,” she said. “It was an arranged marriage because it was necessary. We always and only fought with each other. But we never could go in for divorce, because we had too many children.”

Pfau wrote four books about her work in Pakistan, including To Light a Candle (1987), which was translated into English. In another book, she explained that she had no intention of ever retiring completely.

“I don’t use the word ‘retirement,’” she wrote. “It sounds as if you had completed everything, as if life was over and the world was in order.”

Her only wish was that she would not experience a violent death. Pfau passed away peacefully in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi at the age of 87, and with no immediate survivors.

After the news of her death was announced by the Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Pakistani elite soldiers carried the flag-draped coffin of the German-born nun to a state funeral. Most newspapers in Pakistan wrote glowingly about Pfau who devoted her life to eradicating leprosy in the country. Thousands of mourners, ordinary men and women, lined up the roads to pay their last respects as Pfau’s coffin was carried to the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre that she founded before being taken on to St Patrick’s Cathedral for the official service. Pakistan’s military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa attended the funeral along with the President, Mamnoon Hussain. In a farewell note, the country’s prime minister said Pfau “may have been born in Germany, but her heart was always in Pakistan”.

— With inputs from agencies