Quarantined for Life: The Tragic History of US Leprosy Colonies

For millennia, a diagnosis of leprosy meant a life sentence of social isolation. People with the disease now known as Hansen’s disease – a bacterial infection that ravages the skin and nerves and can cause painful deformities – were generally uprooted from their families, inundated with prejudice and cruelly exiled in permanent quarantine.

In the United States, patients were confined to a handful of remote facilities, where over time, a coarse existence evolved into one with little touchstones of normality. However, patients were systematically deprived of basic civil liberties: working, moving freely and seeing their loved ones, voting, raising their own families. Some children who have had their babies forcefully removed.

In the 1940s, after the emergence of a cure for the disease – and science clearly established that most people were naturally immune to it – other countries began to abolish policies of compulsory isolation. But in the United States, even as the health and condition of leprosy patients improved, old stigma, fear of contagion and outdated laws kept many people confined for decades.

READ MORE: Pandemics that have changed history

Banned in Hawaii

A small number of Hansen’s disease patients are still in Kalaupapa, a leper colony established in 1866 on an isolated but breathtaking land spit on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Thousands lived and died there in the intervening years, including a later canonized saint. But by 2008, the colony’s population had dropped to 24 – and by 2015, only six remained full-time, despite a long recovery. Now in the 80s and 90s, many residents first arrived on the island as a child. They knew no other life.

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