International Leprosy Association -
History of Leprosy

  • International Leprosy Association -
    History of Leprosy


    Rovisco Pais


    Category Leprosarium
    Country Portugal
    Address Tocha-Cantanhede, Coimbra


    This leprosarium was the largest in Portugal and is now the only one remaining open in the country. During the 1990s, around a thousand patients were admitted, and thirty four people still remain there, living in complete isolation.
    Le bulletin de l'ALLF, July 2003, No. 13, p12

    By 1930, in Portugal, leprosy was considered such a matter of concern in Public Health terms that the government formed a committee to study the disease and legislation was enacted requiring obligatory notification and isolation. In 1938 the government law, number 29122, created the National Leprosaria, Rovisco Pais, a leprosy hospital which was intended for the treatment of those affected by the illness, as well as for the study of prophylaxis.

    The heritage of the benefactor José Rovisco Pais enabled the purchase of the estate “Quinta da Fonte Quente”. (The former owners had been the religious group called the Crúzios”.) Situated in Tocha Cantanhede (Coimbra), the estate consisted of about 150 hectates. There were extensive pine tree areas, lagoons, and arable lands, offering an ideal environment to ensure an active life for those affected by the illness, the majority of whom had originally come from rural areas.

    In 1940 the construction began of what was to be, at that time, the largest hospital facility ever built in Portugal, with many buildings of architectural beauty.

    In September 1947, the Colonia Rovisco Pais Hospital was officially opened. Its facilities included two asylums, two pavilions for capable individuals, six houses for workers, a pavilion for infectious cases, eight family blocks with eighteen houses each, the hospital and other surrounding facilities which supported the whole complex. This included workshops where young adults worked or learnt a skill.

    In October 1947, the Rovisco Pais facilities welcomed its first patients. In December of the same year, 368 patients were registered; and in 1951, the number rose to 901. In 1947, patients were committed to the hospital, but those who presented no danger in terms of infection were not compulsorily committed.

    The numbers of patients can be seen in decades:

    December 1947, 368 patients;

    December 1957, 853 patients;

    December 1967, 766 patients;

    December 1977, 180 patients (accompanied by a change on the legislation 547/76);

    December 1987, 105 patients;

    March 1997, 66 patients

    In January 1962, the first edition of the journal Rovisco Pais was produced in order to publicise the activities of those working in the institution. Their goal was to combat the disease, rehabilitate those affected by the disease, communicate advances in research, fight against stigma and unite those working against leprosy throughout the world. The final edition of this journal was in December 1981.

    In August 1966 the Association for the Protection of those Affected by Leprosy and their Families was created. Its main aim was to provide financial support for families. It still provides this support nationwide without any state backing.

    In 1967 Rovisco Pais purchased another estate, “Quinta das Ferreirinhas – Recovery Centre” the purpose of which was to socially rehabilitate patients so that they could return to the outside world. This service was subsequently handed over to the health Ministry.

    In 1957 and 1968, Raoul Follereau visited Rovisco Pais.

    In April 1977, the first patients began to leave the hospital with a subsidy allowing them to return to society. This was provided by the Hansen’s Disease Assistance Institute and was later converted into a social pension with the support of social security.

    Some of the facilities of Rovisco Pais have been turned over to other organizations such as the Association of the Parents of Mentally Handicapped Children, Social Services of the Health Ministry, the Agricultural Ministry and the Portuguese Firefighters League.

    Rovisco Pais then became a rehabilitation and medical center serving six districts of Portugal with 120 to 140 beds for those with severe handicaps. This was accomplished through the government legislation of number 203/96. The center is closely connected to the local health centers and emphasises investigations and training in physical therapy and rehabilitation.

    The remaining leprosy affected residents receive assistance from the medical rehabilitation centre as long as is necessary. At present there are 66 residents, 55% are female and 45% are male. They either live in the main pavilion, the hospital or in ten of the family houses in block number 4.

    The average age is 73 years and the women are generally older than the men. Seventy per cent of the women are between 70 and 80 years of age, while the men are between 60 and 70 years. Only 28% of the residents have family members and 63% have lived in the hospital for more than 30 years. Thirty per cent have never left the facilities. Fifty five per cent have severe disabilities caused by the disease. Only 13% have an occupation such as painting, outdoor cleaning, laundry, or food preparation. In their daily lives they occupy themselves playing cards or dominoes, watching television, knitting, reading, religious activities, walking, and holiday camps. An exception to this way of life are those in block four who all carry out their normal household chores and look after their gardens.

    “Hansen’s Disease in Portugal and the Rovisco Pais Hospital” presented by Maria Madalena Mesquita Barreto Rico, a social worker at the Rovisco Pais Hospital – Tocha, April 1977

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