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Quarantined for Life: The Tragic History of US Leprosy Colonies

March 31, 2020 in History

By Natasha Frost

Stripped of their most basic human rights, patients nonetheless built lives and communities.

For millennia, a diagnosis of leprosy meant a life sentence of social isolation. People afflicted with the condition now known as Hansen’s disease—a bacterial infection that ravages the skin and nerves and can cause painful deformities—were typically ripped from their families, showered with prejudice and cruelly exiled into life-long quarantine.

In the United States, patients were confined to a handful of remote settlements, where over time, a crude existence evolved into one with small touchstones of normalcy. But patients were consistently deprived of fundamental civil liberties: to work, to move freely and see loved ones, to vote, to raise families of their own. Some who bore children had their babies forcibly removed.

By the 1940s, after a cure emerged for the condition—and science made clear that most of the population had a natural immunity to it—other countries began to abolish compulsory isolation policies. But in the U.S., even as leprosy patients’ health and conditions improved, old stigmas, fear of contagion and outdated laws kept many confined for decades longer.

READ MORE: in 1971. For some, that “home for life” translated more closely to a prison, however picturesque. “You were brought here to die,” said Sister Alicia Damien Lau, who first came to the Molokai in 1965, in a 2016 interview. “You were not able to leave the island.”

While patients’ families could visit, they were housed in separate quarters, and allowed to communicate only through a chicken wire screen. “They catch you like a crook and you don’t have any rights at all,” Olivia Robello Breitha, a longtime patient, wrote in her 1988 autobiography. “They didn’t care about ruining a life… I was just a number.”

Known as Kalaupapa for the name of the peninsula, the settlement was one of a small handful of leper colonies in the United States, where patients were stripped of their rights and sent to live out their days. Among them were tiny Penikese Island in Buzzard’s Bay, off the coast of Massachusetts, and the Carville National Leprosarium, in Louisiana. With almost 8,000 patients over about 150 years, Kalaupapa was by the far the largest.

READ MORE: Why the Second Wave of the Spanish Flu Was So Deadly

The ‘separating sickness’

A federally operated institution for some 350 leprosy cases in Carville, Louisiana. Photographed in 1955.

Named for Gerhard Armauer …read more


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