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History of Difäm

From pioneer to partner

The German Institute for Medical Mission, based in Tübingen, was founded by Paul Lechler on 15 November 1906. His aim was to prepare the emigrating staff of missionary societies for their stay abroad and to train them in tropical medicine.

Paul Lechler (1849-1925)

Paul Lechler was an extraordinary and versatile person: a gifted and successful entrepreneur and also a committed Christian, he was socially engaged in various areas and through his charity work set many things in motion. He wrote: "Our Christianity must not merely be a philosophy of life, but must prove itself through active commitment.

Paul Lechler was born in Böblingen in 1849. As a young man he was already an experienced entrepreneur who expanded his father's paint factory into a profitable business in Stuttgart. A brilliant career and a life of material prosperity seemed guaranteed. But the work of a company manager alone did not satisfy Paul Lechler. He clearly recognised the social reality of the factory workers, most of whom lived in poverty. There were no job centres, no social security, and if the breadwinner of a family became ill, this often meant great hardship for the whole family. Lechler felt that his talents and success were both a gift and a task for him and deliberately wanted to take on social responsibility.

At the age of 26, Paul Lechler decided to allocate ten percent of his company's annual profits to church and social causes. At the age of 28, he handed over the company to senior employees in order to devote himself increasingly to social tasks. Subsequently, Lechler did voluntary work among the poor in Stuttgart, but after a year he set up a factory again, selling lubricating oils as well as a wood preservative. In 1882 he founded the first private job agency in Stuttgart, which he managed and financed for eleven years.

Towards the foundation (1898-1906)

Paul Lechler had been following the aims and work of Medical Mission with interest for some time when he met Dr Georg-Eugen Liebendörfer, a missionary doctor at Basel Mission, in 1898. Impressed by his stories about the misery and disease in India and about the difference a missionary doctor could make, he decided to help actively. At the end of 1898, he founded an association for medical missions in Stuttgart as an aid association for the Basel Mission Society. In the time that followed, there were repeated discussions as to whether it would be reasonable and necessary to set up a "German Institute for Medical Mission", following the English model. Paul Lechler consistently pursued this idea and thanks to his many connections and with his financial support, the Institute could be brought into life in 1906.

Missionaries, people, doctors

In addition to the training of missionary doctors, DIFÄM also played an important role in the training of nurses, in the treatment of missionaries who had returned home sick and, last but not least, in the development of tropical medicine in Germany. Over time, the number of Protestant doctors going abroad slowly increased. However, there were repeated interruptions in German involvement because of the world wars.

From Pioneer to Partner - The Changing Role of Medical Professionals

With the independence of many countries, it became clear that a western understanding of medicine was not appropriate for the local people and could not simply be exported. Basic health programmes were developed that focused on solidarity, participation, social justice, prevention and adapted medical care. Universities and training centres were established and local staff took on more and more responsibility.

Following independence, most of the mission hospitals were either taken over by the new governments or became the responsibility of local churches. Even today, up to 70 per cent of health care in Africa is provided by churches. In addition, church-run nursing schools, colleges and universities play a very important role in education.

The role of health workers who come to Africa from Europe, North America or Australia has changed fundamentally. Instead of pioneers, experts are now needed to work alongside the local staff, to train them and, where there are no doctors, to provide medical care - all of this, if possible, under local leadership. Partners are needed who can listen, understand and respect the other culture and contribute their expertise to advance the cause of the local people.