Joseph Wheeler has been a Pathfinder since the early 1990s, but his support for family planning long precedes his support of Pathfinder. Together with his wife, Verona, he has generously ensured that Pathfinder can continue our work for generations to come by joining our Legacy Society and making a bequest.
Born in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1926, Wheeler grew up the son of dairy farmers. After a brief stint in the Army Air Corps, he graduated from Bowdoin in 1948 and later received his master’s degree from Harvard. In 1961, he joined Sargent Shriver in establishing the Peace Corps, eventually leaving for an esteemed career at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
In 1969, Wheeler became USAID’s Mission Director in Pakistan. At the time, the country consisted of the western wing, what we think of today as Pakistan, and the eastern wing, currently known as Bangladesh.
In his memoir, Wheeler shared how family planning programs in Bangladesh (then eastern Pakistan) were first established: an existing cholera program enlisted a community-based volunteer to teach women about fertility and provide contraceptives. The program found that when women and men received the requisite information and means of protection, they waited longer to have children and spaced their pregnancies at safer intervals. Given its success, the program eventually expanded throughout eastern Pakistan.
Wheeler said eastern Pakistan’s support for family planning at that time contributes to the vast difference in contraceptive use among Pakistanis and Bangladeshis today—nearly 27 percent more women of reproductive age use contraception in Bangladesh than in Pakistan. In addition, he attributes the difference to Bangladesh continuing to make family planning a higher priority, the greater likelihood that women and girls in Bangladesh attend school and to cultural differences between the two countries.
It was also in Pakistan that Wheeler worked with Steve Sinding, a recognized expert on international population issues, a Pathfinder International board member, and until his retirement in 2006, Director General of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. Sinding introduced Wheeler to Pathfinder’s work and ultimately recruited him to the board of directors.
Wheeler became involved with Pathfinder because he saw how Pathfinder’s approach in Pakistan improved the lives of women, their families and their communities.
Wheeler’s favorite slogan comes from Immanuel Kant: “So act that your actions can be universalized.”
“This contains the assumption that all of us are important—we are brothers and sisters in a single family,” Wheeler says.