Leper Hospitals and Colonies


Source: http://www.leprosyhistory.org/graphics/gallery/burma2.jpg




In the Middle Ages we begin to see a rise in a transition from simply leper colonies to leper hospitals, and churches were beginning to open their doors to the treatment of lepers. Hospitals such as the St. James leper hospital in Chichester opened in 1118 by Queen Maud (a consort of Henry I), and the Hospital of St. Nicholas Harbledown opened in 1084, embodied the ideas in medieval religious society that it was a noble thing to be able to converse and build relationships with the leper. Indeed, institutions such as those at Harbledown were run by monastics, and lepers were encouraged to live monastic life styles in these establishments, for their health as well as quarantine, but also because the suffering of a leper was viewed as Purgatory on earth, and therefore more holy than a normal personŐs suffering.


The only leper hospital in the continental United States was established between New Orleans and Baton Rouge in 1894 in Carville, Louisiana. The center at Carville was at first much like a prison where leprosy sufferers were sent for isolation in the early 20th century. Many patients were entered at the site under false names and few gave even such information as their hometowns  for fear of the shame that even revealing that much information would bring on their families and communities. The hospital transitioned in later years into less of a prison-like institution to a place of treatment and therapy, but the stigma remained. Patients isolated at Carville developed their own subculture, writing their own newspaper and even having their own Mardi Gras celebration. A study of former patients at the Carville hospital in 1990 shows that some of these patients had conducted elaborate lies to tell the everyday person about their illness. Instead of admitting the disease, one patient interviewed had claimed injuries to his hand as well as his feet were due to his involvement in the conflict in Korea. His hands were deformed because of a faulty grenade, he claimed. This story was easy to believe, and easy to claim as the hospital at Carville was a United States Public Health Service hospital and admitted many veterans after World War II. The man even said that after he admitted to people that his deformities were, in fact, due to leprosy, people refused to believe him. People would rather believe that leprosy was a disease of the past, and  not of our modern society. The Hospital at Carville was shut down in 1999.


Leper colonies also existed in Hawaii in the mid-19th century, exiled to the Kalaupapa Peninsula. This isolation of leper sufferers remained until 1969 when the quarantine  policy was lifted  because the disease was discovered treatable at outpatient facilities. Because  of so deep rooted a stigma, many disease sufferers decided to stay in the quarantined area.


Leper colonies still exist today. In 2001, a colony in Japan was scrutinized for possible mistreatment of disease sufferers, keeping them quarantined until 1996, well after the disease was found to be not highly contagious. The 1907 Leprosy Prevention Law forced people affected by leprosy onto the islands off of Japan, including the island of Oshima. The Japanese government forcibly kept those with the disease on the island, as well as in many cases, forcibly aborted babies when those affected with leprosy became pregnant. An estimate suggests over 3,500 abortions were carried out, even though leprosy is not genetic. According to a New York Times Article, in June 2001 the Japanese government said it would not contest a court ruling that ordered it to pay $15 million to 127 plaintiffs who had challenged the law that kept patients confined to sanitariums on distant mountains and small islands like Oshima. The government issued a formal apology, and promised to provide all patients with compensation, and aid to return to society.




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