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Health Crises throughout History (January 2022): Leprosy


The earliest mentions of mass leprosy appear around the third century. Since then, historians, scientists, and theologians have theorized on the impact of the disease, concluding that since its known existence leprosy has often been stigmatized, and that those suffering from the disease were cast out of society through various means. This view permeating society for centuries is challenged by historian Carole Rawcliffe in Leprosy in Medieval England. This essential research work dives into various medieval treatment options available to lepers while also highlighting notions of personal freedom among those infected, reversing preconceived conceptions of an exclusive, dehumanizing environment. 

Miller and Nesbitt’s Walking Corpses: Leprosy in Byzantium and the Medieval West also challenges traditional stereotypes of leprosy, furthering investigation into personal freedom or communal welfare where lepers found acceptance, roles of power, and treatment options. In some instances, congregating lepers formulated inclusive roles among men and women.

Elma Brenner and Francois-Olivier Touati (editors) also attempt to provide a straightened view of leprosy during the medieval ages. Leprosy and Identity in the Middle Ages: From England to the Mediterranean captures research from some of the most prominent modern scholars on the subject, and seeks to provide a voice for individuals who endured the disease to better understand their historical lifestyles. Drawing on myriad primary sources, the work encapsulates life, identity, religion, regionalism, and health relating to leprosy during the Middle-Ages. 

Charlotte Roberts’s Leprosy: Past and Present acknowledges the various stigmas and how they still shape perspectives today. Investigating leprosy’s past, Roberts revisits historical interpretation to better understand how and why various myths emerged. Some of the stigmas behind leprosy are religious and regional perspectives. Investigating multiple countries, she offers both a historical narrative and a scientific investigation into its origins, genetic makeup, and treatment.

By looking at regional history compared to a global investigation, one may understand how stigma surrounding the disease persisted. In Kingdom of the Sick: A History of Leprosy and Japan, Susan Burns explores Japan’s history with the disease in terms of politics, policies, public perception, and global engagement. On the surface one may find that Japan’s early global efforts were prominent or glorified within the historical record when it comes to managing the disease; however, this politicized view is riddled with issues concerning stigmatizing policies and laws, as Burns points out. In the late 1990’s a group of former sanitarium residents filed a lawsuit against the state for their mistreatment and human rights violations regarding quarantine procedures. While the suit was recent, the result provided public insight into an issue dating back to the 19th century. Burns explores exploitation that surrounds the disease. 

In another regional history, Michelle Therese Moran’s Colonizing Leprosy: Imperialism and the Politics of Public Health in the United States investigates how isolation treatment created a similar stigma around the disease. Moran looks into two specific cases: Hawaii’s Kalaupapa and Louisiana’s Carville facilities. When physicians attempted to create a medical site for lepers, they were met with discouragement from the patients, who feared experimentation and exploitation, as well as discrimination. In turn, Carville was built with hopes to establish a seemingly more understanding patient body. Judged on a comparative scale, Moran states that a significant difference between the two regions involved a myth that leprosy was a foreign-born illness, theorizing that Carville had more success in managing the disease. However, patients at this facility often faced cruel circumstances. 

Pam Fessler’s research sheds light on how Carville patients endured harsh practices in Carville’s Cure: Leprosy, Stigma, and the Fight for Justice. Exploring various primary documents, Fessler depicts some of the horrors that surround Carville’s infamy. In many cases patients were forced into isolation against their will and denied contact with loved ones. Carville appeared less like a medical facility and more like a prison. Fessler follows the stories of several patients who, despite their conditions, found moments of solace in Carville. 

Claire Manes explores her own family’s experience in Out of the Shadow of Leprosy: The Carville Letters and Stories of the Landry Family. The narrative relies on the letters and correspondence of Manes’s grandfather and Carville resident, Edmond Landry. In addition to telling her grandfather’s story, Manes pushes back on popular lore associated with Hansen’s Disease (as it is referred to in modern times), which is rooted in biblical references or historical perceptions that have somehow persisted. 

Works Cited