The 2023 Radcliffe Medal recipient Ophelia Dahl is often described as an optimist. At Radcliffe Day on May 26, she confirmed it, and said that her refusal to accept that she cannot change things has driven her life’s work.
“I took a leap of faith,” said Dahl of her 18-year-old self, who went to Haiti to volunteer and met some of the people with whom she would eventually co-found Partners In Health (PIH) in 1987, including the late global health pioneer Paul Farmer, who was then preparing to enter Harvard Medical School. The nonprofit, which has served millions of patients, provides healthcare to the poorest and most vulnerable communities around the world by partnering with local institutions, governments, and communities.
Dahl was the organization’s executive director for 16 years and now chairs its board of directors. She told Radcliffe Day attendees that seeing others in such abject poverty made her realize she had a moral obligation to help.
“I saw for the first time just how dire the situation was in which people were forced to live,” she said. Those conditions were not owing to choice or personal failure but rather systems and historical forces like displacement, slavery, and colonialism. It struck Dahl, daughter of award-winning actress Patricia Neal and renowned writer Roald Dahl, that she had come from great privilege, not just in terms of money, education, and opportunity but even in being encouraged from a young age to believe in the possibility of a better future.