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Healthcare Activist Ophelia Dahl Named 2023 Radcliffe Medal Recipient

Co-founder of nonprofit Partners in Heath, Ophelia M. Dahl, will receive the Radcliffe Medal in May.
Co-founder of nonprofit Partners in Heath, Ophelia M. Dahl, will receive the Radcliffe Medal in May. By Truong L. Nguyen

Ophelia M. Dahl, a healthcare and social justice advocate who co-founded the nonprofit Partners in Health, will receive the 2023 Radcliffe Medal in late May, the Harvard Radcliffe Institute announced Thursday morning.

Dahl will be the 38th recipient of the award, bestowed by the Radcliffe Institute on “an individual who has had a transformative impact on society,” according to the Institute’s website. The award will be presented to Dahl on May 26, a day after Harvard’s 2023 Commencement exercises.

Previous winners include author Toni Morrison, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The Radcliffe Medal was first awarded in 1987 to dancer and civil rights activist Lena Horne.

In 1987, Dahl co-founded Partners in Health — a Boston-based nonprofit that provides healthcare support to populations living in poverty — alongside physician Paul Farmer, a longtime Harvard professor who died last March.

Dahl met Farmer in 1983 when she traveled to Haiti as an 18-year-old to volunteer in a school for children with disabilities. Dahl co-founded Partners in Health just four years later, and she became its executive director in 2001, serving in the role for 16 years.

During her tenure as executive director, Dahl steered the organization through the 2014 Ebola epidemic, oversaw the opening of a solar-powered hospital in rural Haiti, assisted with the response to Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, and led efforts to expand Rwanda’s health care system.

Dahl remains involved with Partners in Health as the chair of the organization’s board of directors.

Dahl, who is the daughter of renowned children’s book author Roald Dahl, also helps lead the Roald Dahl Literary Estate. The estate announced last month that Roald Dahl’s books had been altered to remove potentially offensive language, drawing criticism from some literary figures and British politicians.

A 1994 graduate of Wellesley College, Ophelia Dahl currently serves on the college’s board of trustees. Dahl also joined the board of trustees of the Clinton Health Access Initiative late last year, a global health organization co-founded by former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

In a 2006 commencement address to Wellesley graduates, Dahl urged students to avoid planning too far ahead, explaining that Partners in Health was created from a series of small steps.

“We had one specific goal: to bring healthcare to a small area of rural Haiti, to a group that had lost their land and their livelihood to a hydroelectric dam,” Dahl said in 2006.

“We didn’t have a strategy or a budget,” she added. “The lack of planning allowed us to be spontaneous, nimble, we call it, and it allowed us to react very quickly to problems as they arose.”

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.

—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @eschisgall.

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