International Leprosy Association -
History of Leprosy

  • International Leprosy Association -
    History of Leprosy


    The National Archives (United Kingdom)


    Category Institutional Archive
    Organization The National Archives
    Country United Kingdom
    Address The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU
    Telephone +44 (0) 20 8876 3444


    The National Archives of the United Kingdom (formerly known as the Public Record Office before it was merged with the Historical Manuscripts Commission in 2003) is the UK government's official archive. It has a varied collection of material relating to leprosy. There are holdings in the records of the following: the Colonial Office, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Health, the Medical Research Council, the Dominions Office, the Works Department, the Admiralty, and the Treasury.

    The records of the Colonial Office have material dating from 1916. There is early material associated with the work of the British Empire Leprosy Relief Association. There are reports of Frank Oldrieve’s and Ernest Muir’s tours. For example, the repository holds a file on Frank Oldrieve’s tour to the Gold Coast (1926-7) and the formation of a Gold Coast branch of BELRA. There is a report on leprosy in Nigeria (which includes a summary of the history of dealing with leprosy there, statistics, and references to a Lepers’ Ordinance for the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria, 1916). Leprosy work at the following is mentioned: Sokoto; Katsina, Kano; Hadeija, Kano; Maiduguri, Bornu; Geidam, Bornu; Fika, Bornu; Zaria; Abuja, Nassarawa; Keffi, Nassarawa; Jos, Bauchi; Yola; Onitsha, Yola; Mutum Bui, Muri; and Yaba, Lagos. Oldrieve recommends Muir’s latest treatment: injections of pure hydnocarpus oil with 4% creosote added. He estimates the numbers for Northern Province as 3.2 per mille. There is also an attached memorandum on views of leprosy held amongst the “Mohammedans in Bornu and in legal and other books of learning in circulation locally” (prepared by the acting resident, Lethem). These documents record that on 14 June 1926, Governor Graeme Thomson was appointed as the Medical Secretary, and Dr Moiser was recommended as Secretary for the Nigerian Branch of BELRA, but Dr Duncan Dixey was sent after first spending time at the London School of Tropical Medicine and the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine.

    This department also holds records on the treatment of leprosy in British Guiana, specifically at the leper settlement at Mahaica (1935, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1944, 1946-7). There are documents on Antigua (1926-1928), and Dominica (1928, 1933). It also holds documents on Dr Muir’s tour to the West Indies. These include several reports: on leprosy in St Lucia (19th Feb 1942) (including the Leper Home Malgretoute, two miles from Soufriere); a report on leprosy in St Kitts and Nevis, which mentions a leper home 10 miles from Basseterre (St Kitts); a subsequent report on leprosy in St Kitts and Nevis (15-25 July, 1944), in which Muir reports that Moogrol is the only preparation available for treatment and hydnocarpus oil should be made available; a report on leprosy in Antigua (28th Jan-3rd Feb 1942), where the leper colony was formerly located on Rat Island in St John’s Harbour, but had since been relocated to the west coast, south-west of St John’s. It mentions that the Leper Act had been amended in Antigua in 1937, making provision for compulsory segregation. There are two reports on Jamaica (4-15 July, 1944 and 28 October - 12 November, 1943). These focus on the leper asylum at Spanish Town. Muir also reports on leprosy in British Guiana, including the leprosarium at Mahaica (1943).

    There are files on leprosy in West Africa (1933-34), a survey of Ceylon (1933), Zanzibar (1938, 1951-52), Northern Rhodesia (1950-51), Malaya (1949-50), Nigeria (1949-50, 1955-6), Kenya (1951-2), Tonga (1953-64), and East Africa (1954-6).

    The records of the Foreign Office have the “answers to queries” (1862-1863) and the “answer to questions”(sent out in April 1872) about the prevalence and treatment of leprosy received from all over the world.

    There is correspondence in response to Tilbury Fox and T Farquar’s publication on skin diseases, which was circulated in April 1872. Responses were received from Bahia (Dr Domingos Rodriguez, Seixas, Professor of the Faculty of Medicine of Bahia); from Peking, which reported that “This disease exists continuously …My efforts to secure advanced lepers for purposes of photography have not been successful: probably as they are treated as ordinary members of society, they object to exposing their deformities to satisfy curiosity”; from Christiania (Dr Boeck); from Honolulu (Dr Hoffmann, physician to Kalihi Asylum, Taiwan, who provides extracts from Customs and Medical Reports, Shanghai 1871-1873); from Peking (which provides a “Report by Dr N Gauld on the Endemic Skin Diseases noticed at Swatow” where “The Chinese speak of thirty-six varieties of leprosy …”); from Canton, which states that “This disease is endemic here, and very prevalent. It is estimated that in the whole province of Canton there are over 10 000 lepers. … It is considered that in almost every village in this neighbourhood, of one or two thousand inhabitants, one or two lepers may be found. There are two leper villages outside of this city, one having about seven or eight hundred inhabitants, and the other over a thousand”. There is a response from Manson in Amoy (12 August 1873). There are files on the 1867 Report on Leprosy produced by the Royal College on Physicians, Gavin Milroy’s report on Leprosy and Yaws in the West Indies (1872), Vandyke Carter’s Report on Leprosy and Leper Asylums in Norway, and a 1876 report on leprosy in North Italy, the Greek Archipelago, Palestine, and parts of Bombay.

    In the queries sent out between 1862-1863, replies were received from Damascus, Syria, Smyrna, Tangier, Bosnia, Salonica, Thessaly, Bucharest and Tunis. Lengthy replies were supplied by Dr Brunelli, an Italian researcher in Crete. The reply from the West Indies comments:

    “One principal reason throughout the West Indies for its prevalence and present increase, is that ever since slavery, less and less care has gradually been taken in separating the diseased from the healthy. The free Negro is necessarily now more his own master, and diseased Negro families can do more as they like, especially in their own grounds in the mountain districts: The imperfect isolation of the leper from his healthy neighbours has always been a cause of the continuance of leprosy in the West-Indies, and until very strict and severe sanitary laws are enforced, it will ever remain so.

    "I remember at Montego Bay in Jamaica, the leper village was within a mile of the town, was visited by the Doctors who visited the town: the lepers reared poultry, and sold them and eggs and even vegetables in the town, either directly themselves – or through the means of their friends and relatives, and communication was limited certainly, but still existing, took place constantly between the town and the lepers in the village, around which there was no wall or fence. There was no absolute isolation - and no cordon sanitaire. Leprosy did not diminish and fully maintained its ground….

    "I take the liberty to suggest that wherever it is possible, lepers in the West Indies should be confined in some of the smaller islands near the large ones; which inlets might be set apart for their exclusive residence, under surveillance – and guarded by severe quarantine laws: that all marriages should be forbidden among lepers, and that as much as can be managed the sexes should be separated … and that all Negro lepers should without exception be sent to these isolated hospitals or Lazarettos, there to live, - and (let us look the fearful danger of the loathsome and hopeless pestilence in the face!) there to die.… that direful and desperate distemper ought to be regarded as a species of social crime, for which no ticket of leave is ever admissible: - half measures do no good to the leper, and won’t succeed in diminishing their numbers: - and when communication and contact bring with them the probable chance of such a horrible disease being continued and spread amongst a population peculiarly liable to catch it – from whom also white inhabitants may easily acquire the fatal infection, every means of obviating and completely preventing such contact should be adopted and preserved.” (A Graham Dunlop, Consul 10 Jan 1863)

    A report from Canton notes:

    “An asylum called the leper village exists about a mile from Canton, and a similar place of refuge is provided at almost every one of the ninety walled cities in this province. The Canton asylum was founded some two hundred years ago by private benevolence, but the inmates receive a pittance from Government. The asylum is a wretched collection of dilapidated cottages, in which the utmost filth and squalor prevails. There are upwards of nine hundred inmates … many of the lepers receive assistance from their friends, and many others enter the city daily for the purpose of begging. In addition to these about two thousand five hundred are believed to gain a livelihood in Canton as professional beggars, ropemakers or peddlers, of whom perhaps five hundred live in small boats on the river.

    "Leprosy prevails throughout the whole of the South of China, as far as the Yang-tse kiang, which it seldom crosses. It is most common in Kwangtung. A popular superstition connects it with the banyan and there is a proverb to the effect that leprosy and the Banyan tree came from India in the same year. A seed brought from Siam and called the Ta Fungtze (Sucraban seed?) is considered the most efficacious.” (D B Robertson, British Consulate, Hong Kong, May 11, 1863)

    The records of the Ministry of Health contain material from its predecessors in the years 1834-1909 and 1887-1898. There is correspondence with Cochrane (1961-62), a geographical survey of the United Kingdom (1948-66), material related to the appointment of a leprosy specialist in the United Kingdom, documents related to the teaching and research unit at Oxford (1964-1967), and papers and correspondence relating to the Panel of Leprosy (1973-1974).

    The records created or inherited by the Medical Research Council range from 1923 until the late 1970s. These include documents associated with the inauguration of BELRA (1923-1934), proposals for a research unit in East Africa (1944-1952, 1952-1954, 1957), and documents associated with the Leprosy Research Unit, Itesio (1954-55). Leprosy Committee minutes from its earlier entity, the Leprosy sub-committee of the Colonial Medical Research Council (1960 – 1973) are available. This department includes material on Dr R Rees’s work at NIMR, Dr M Waters’ work at Sungei Buloh (there is a summary progress report written in 1971), and Dr J Kinnear Brown’s BCG trials in Uganda. Some of these documents are embargoed.

    Of particular interest is Robert Cochrane’s proposal in 1951 to the CMRC for a Leprosy Research Unit in the UK in which he uses Ross Innes’s proposal for a Leprosy Institute in East Africa as an example of specialised field research units connected to a British research centre. There are documents associated with the changeover from the Colonial Medical Research Committee (CMRC) to the Tropical Medicine Research Board when the subcommittees of CMRC became committees of MRC (Medical Research Council), resulting in the formation of a new Leprosy Committee. There is correspondence from Dr John Lowe, at the Leprosy Research Institute Unit, Uzuakoli, Eastern Nigeria and a report from Dr R Rees on the development of research at the East African Leprosy Research Centre, Itesio, Kenya in 1957 (including the appointment of Dr Garrod). There is extensive documentation around Kinnear Brown’s trials and the WHO attempts to establish a comparable methodology between the trials conducted in Nepal by Dr Bechelli of WHO, in New Guinea by Dr Russell, and in Uganda by Dr Kinnear Brown (1968). Trials of BCG, investigations of CIBA 1906 (DPT), Etisul, press cuttings on B663 Phenazine derivative, synthesised by Dr Barry in Dublin, and activity reports on the transmission of M leprae to animals in the context of international developments in Bombay (Khanolkar), Calcutta (Chatterjee). Washington (Binford), Atlanta (Shepard), and the Argentine (Bergel) are held. The future of research at Alupe and Uzuakoli is also discussed.

    The records of the Dominions Office include reports on leprosy in Basutoland (1930-1935 1931-1936), the Botsabelo Leper Settlement (1943-1946), and an investigation into leprosy in Nauru (1922).

    Entry updated 11 January 2016


    Organization National Archives of England, Wales and the United Kingdom
    Address The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU
    Telephone +44 (0) 20 8876 3444

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