International Leprosy Association -
History of Leprosy

  • International Leprosy Association -
    History of Leprosy


    CPDOC - Fundação Getúlio Vargas


    Category Other
    Organization Fundação Getúlio Vargas
    Country Brazil
    Address Praia de Botafogo, 190 14° Andar - Botafogo, 22253-900 - Rio de Janeiro - RJ - Brazil


    The CPDOC - Centro de Pesquisa e Documentação de História Contemporâneo (Centre for Research and Documentation of Contemporary History) at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation holds manuscripts, photographs, correspondence and reports related to leprosy, mainly dating from the 1930s to the 1950s. Please note that the spelling of place names is consistent with that in the archival documents, and may differ slightly from that used elsewhere.

    The following description covers much of the information contained in the archive. A very detailed description of each document (in Portuguese) can be accessed here (PDF, 126 pages).

    Getúlio Vargas

    Getúlio Vargas was President of Brazil from 1930 to 1945. His diary (1930-1942, Reference: GV Rem 2 1930.10.03), held in this archive, covers almost all of this period. The following extracts are particularly informative concerning leprosy-related activities:

    • 22-24 September 1933 - Getúlio Vargas describes his visit to Maranhão, where he visited leprosy patients and was struck by the poverty of the people. Martins de Almeida (Interventor: Governor appointed by the President - 1933-1935), told him about the economic situation of the State.
    • 10-20 August 1938 - A description by Vargas of his visit to the town of Campos, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, where he inaugurated the Leprosário de Iguá, which later became Hospital-Colônia Tavares de Macedo.
    • 9 February 1938 - Vargas has a meeting with the Interventor of Maranhão. Apparently, a doctor from this state sent a letter to the President, informing him that the Interventor had leprosy. Knowing this, Vargas confirmed it by seeing a mark on the man’s hand, and was concerned about contracting the disease from a handshake.
    • 5 August 1941 - Vargas describes a visit to Mato Grosso and Paraguay. In the capital of Mato Grosso do Sul, he participiates in the inauguration of the city leprosarium (São Julião), along with Júlio Muller (Interventor 1937-1945).

    Eunice Weaver

    There are a number of documents written by and sent to Eunice Weaver, President of the Federação das Sociedades de Assistência aos Lázaros e Defesa contra a Lepra. These are on microfilm, Ref - GC b Weaver, E Rolo 6 fot 626-631. In correspondence to Gustavo Capanema, she mentions her visit to Asunción, Paraguay, and thanks him for the way in which he introduced her to the Minister of Health (9 September 1943); praises him on his impact in the fight against leprosy (25 February 1946); gives her impressions of Cuba, including the success of the Government in the spheres of education and health. She founded two ‘Sociedades de Assistência aos Lázaros’ in Cuba, and was informed that a preventório would be inaugurated the following year. She also showed films on leprosy control measures taken in Brazil by Vargas’ Government (14 July 1946); acknowledges Capanema’s role in public health and his support for the Federação das Sociedades de Assistência aos Lázaros e Defesa contra a Lepra (29 December 1948). Other correspondence from Weaver mentions two preventórios to be built, one in Guaporé, the other in the Triângulo Mineiro region of Minas Gerais.

    Correspondence from Iracema Sobral (GC j 1946.01.19 – rolo 73 fot.927) requests that Weaver go to the city of João Pessoa, as there are problems between the State Government and the Preventório Directorate.

    There is a typed tribute to Capanema (GC j 1946.01.19 – rolo 73 fot. 917-8), written by Eunice Weaver, which was published in Souza-Araujo’s História da Lepra no Brasil. She describes the progress made in leprosy control since 1934, while Capanema was Minister of Education and Health, and his interest in the subject even before this, when he signed the decree of 25 September 1933, ensuring the construction of the colonies Padre Damião and São Francisco de Assis, in Minas Gerais.

    Gustavo Capanema

    Gustavo Capanema was a ‘deputado federal’ (akin to a Member of Parliament / Representative, for the Federal Government) from 1946 to 1959. A thirty-nine page document (GC h 1935.09.02 – rolo 62 fot. 545-64) sent to him from by João de Barros Barreto (Director of the National Health Department) on 8 February 1936 affirms that the anti-leprosy measures taken by Getúlio Vargas were influenced by Capanema. The report aims at persuading the Government to construct and improve leprosaria, and highlights the need to revise the leprosy census, the installations within leprosaria and the sanitary legislation. An analysis of each state is made, showing numbers of people with leprosy, how many leprosaria are needed, costs etc. A table shows the number of people in Brazil with the disease as 30 309, 76% of which need to be in a total of forty-three leprosaria across the country. A breakdown of the number of institutions needed in each state is given. These figures are echoed in handwritten notes by Capanema (GC h 1935.09.02 – rolo 62 fot. 570), dated 1937, which regard practical action on leprosy to be taken by the Government. There are already twenty institutions open, and soon eight more are to be inaugurated.

    More written pages (GC h 1935.09.02 – rolo 62 fot. 618-19), dated 1937, describe the plan to construct leprosaria, which has been approved by the President. The four points of the Plan (Research, Census, Legislation, Administration) are explained. In the same year, Capanema also wrote on preventórios (GC h 1935.09.02 – rolo 62 fot. 676), describing them as a consistent part of the anti-leprosy plan, as they were to take care of healthy children whose parents had leprosy. The Government aided their construction, and they were to be the responsibility of the Federação das Sociedades de Assistência aos Lázaros and the Associação de Assistência aos Lázaros.

    There is the manuscript of a four-page summary of the leprosy census, sent from Capanema to the President (GC h 1935.09.02 – rolo 62 fot. 668-70). It states that 25 000 people with the disease are isolated, but there it is estimated that there are 50 000 more. Before 1931, there was very little Government funding for leprosy; after 1934, funding increased. The most funding so far was given in 1937, covering every state, and this was spent on construction, installation and maintenance of leprosaria.

    A telegram dated 15 June 1944 from Argemiro Rezende to Gustavo Capamema (Minister of Education and Public Health, 1934-1945), tells of the Federal Government’s leprosy activities, especially in the state of Minas Gerais.

    There is correspondence from H C de Souza Araújo to Capanema (1946) regarding Araújo’s book, História da Lepra no Brasil - 1° volume.

    There are a number of microfilmed telegrams, letters and reports (GC k 1951.01.30 – Rolo 86 fot.654-724) relating to a situation involving Capanema. There is correspondence from Juscelino Kubitschek (Governor of Minas Gerais, 1951-1955), to Capanema dated 23 April 1951, and again 25 May 1951, which informs of a project aiming to make available a large amount of financial aid to be evenly split between the Instituto Butantã and Instituto de Tecnologia Industrial de Belo Horizonte, for the national production of sulphones for the treatment of leprosy. At the beginning of August 1951, Capanema was criticised in the media for allegedly influencing other ‘deputados federais’ to vote against this allocation of funds, and for proposing that the amount be reduced by half. There follows a telegraphed reply from Capanema to Castro Carvalho (Member of the Serviço Medical da Assembléia do Estado de São Paulo), and an official report, written by Capanema, in which the cited accusations are denied. Other correspondence shows both criticisms levelled at him and his defence. On 7 August 1951, a parliamentary debate in Rio de Janeiro dealt with this issue, the report of which is in the archive. Capanema denied the accusations, and explained that a proposal was made by the Comissão de Saúde Pública to halve the allocation, as an economic measure, because sulphones are not the only cure available for leprosy. The Project was described as having two aims – to produce sulphones and to continue research on other leprosy treatments. A number of members confirmed that Capanema had never attempted to influence their vote.

    A telegram dated 23 July 1953 (GC k 1951.01.30 – Rolo 86 fot.748) from Ernani Agrícola (Director of the Serviço Nacional de Lepra – National Leprosy Service) asks Capanema to help speed up Project 3163, which is to give financial help to the Associação Brasileira de Leprologia (Brazilian Leprosy Association) for the Brazilian delegation at the International Leprosy Congress in Madrid in October 1953.


    A letter from Demócrito Rocha to Capitão Mendonça, written in December 1933, concerns Canafistula Leprosarium, in the state of Ceará, and informs that the institution is full to capacity and cannot take any more patients, even though the number of sufferers is increasing in the town of Fortaleza.

    There are many records relating to the leprosarium of Iguá; these are on microfilm GC h 1935.09.02 – rolo 62 fot. 472-538 / 566-7 / 660-662 / 688-89 / 701. These mainly date from 1935-36, and cover decisions on its location, construction and early days. Documents include:-

    • A record dated 1 February 1935, addressed to the Director of Public Health for Rio de Janeiro state, pondering over a suitable location for Iguá Leprosarium. The best site appears to be in the vicinity of Niterói, and the advantages of this site are discussed.
    • A typed document stamped by the Directorate of Public Health, and dated 2 February 1935, handing responsibility for the construction of Iguá Leprosarium over to Dr Augusto Mesquita (Head of the Service of Leprosy and Venereal Diseases). On the reverse are handwritten notes on the choice, purchase and price of the land intended for the site.
    • Official documents dated 1935, one stamped with the seal of the Procuradoria da Fazenda do Estado do Rio de Janeiro; another with that of the Secretaria da Produção do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, contain information on the creation of a leprosarium in Itaboraí.
    • Correspondence (March 1935) relating to the discrepancy between the size of the site as stated by Agenor Maurício Telles, the land owner selling the plot, and that shown in the official records. This leads to problems over price.
    • A number of letters between Gustavo Capanema and Protogenes Guimarães (Governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, 1935-7) during April-October 1936, discussing, among other items, the requests of the local population to relocate the leprosarium. Capanema agrees but insists that the State Government of Rio purchase a new site for the proposed construction. One letter in particular has handwritten notes directed at the President of the Republic, updating him regarding a meeting about the leprosarium. These suggestions by the Federal Government are not accepted by the Rio State Government, as shown in a following letter; Guimarães emphasises that the State Government’s priorities lie not in the location of the leprosarium but in the condition of the people with leprosy who are wandering freely in the state.
    • A typed document dated December 1936 from Augusto Mesquita, relating that Interventor Ary Parreiras acquired the land for Iguá Leprosarium in Itaboraí which was approved by Ernani Agrícola, Joaquim Motta (Director of State Sanitary Services) and Theophilo de Almeida (Director of Curupaití Leprosarium). The leprosarium’s buildings and installations are described, and Mesquita is not aware of any complaints from local residents. However, a document from the following year answers complaints about the site chosen for the colony. It states that there is no danger in placing leprosaria near urban areas, moreover that they should be in such locations for reasons of access to medical aid, scientific study and supervision.
    • An original, printed copy of a piece published in O Jornal is dated 14 July 1935, and reports on the ceremony marking the start of construction work on Iguá leprosarium. The colony is to shelter all leprosy patients from the large towns of Rio de Janeiro state, who have little medical assistance and are living among the inhabitants.
    • A 1938 document gives information on Iguá colony, including location, area, construction and plans for further development.
    • A telegram, 1938, from the Sociedade Campista de Amparo aos Lázaros e Defesa Contra a Lepra congratulates Capanema on the inauguration of Iguá leprosarium.

    A telegram dated 3 July 1936 (GC h 1935.09.02 – rolo 62 fot. 533) from Capanema to Protogenes Guimarães is a reply to an earlier one, requesting the re-opening of the pharmacy at the lazaretto of Ilha Grande. Capanema assures the governor that the necessary measures are being taken.

    There is a typed copy of a speech made by Dr Barros Barreto at the inauguration of Bonfim Leprosarium in São Luis (GC h 1935.09.02 – rolo 62 fot. 653-5).

    There are documents (GC h 1935.09.02 – rolo 62 fot. 568-9 / 684) dated 1937 on Itanhenga Colony in Espírito Santo. These contain details on the colony’s buildings, administration and installations. One emphasises that the state of Espírito Santo has the best leprosy census in the country, carried out by Pedro Fontes, Head of the Serviço de Prophylaxia da Lepra (Leprosy Prophylaxis Service). 65% of people with leprosy work and live in the countryside, therefore the ‘colônia agrícola’ is the best solution. Telegrams (GC h 1935.09.02 – rolo 62 fot. 658-9) dated 19 May and 29 April 1937, between Capanema and the National Academy of Medicine, refer to the inauguration of Itanhenga leprosarium, an event described as a great undertaking in the area of public health.

    A historical summary of work carried out at Curupaití is contained in a document from 1937 (GC h 1935.09.02 – rolo 62 fot. 575). The summary is typed, with written notes, and covers the period 1922 to 1937.

    A letter from Nereu Ramos (Interventor of the state of Santa Catarina, 1937-45) to Capanema, dated 24 February 1938, informs of the dispatch of photographs of the construction work for Colônia Santa Thereza.


    The annual report for the year 1935 (GC h 1935.09.02 – rolo 62 fot.527-9) from the Department of Leprosy Control in the State of São Paulo gives a brief history of the department, set up in 1924. The construction of a number of leprosaria in the state is covered, including Santo Ângelo, Aymorés, Cocaes, Padre Bento and Pirapitinguy. The number of patients, and other data on leprosy in the state, is also given.

    A government document (GC h 1935.09.02 – rolo 62 fot.539-40) entitled, Ligeiro Histórico até 1935 (inclusive) – Realizações do Governo Federal, gives a brief history of leprosy control from the early twentieth century until 1935, when the report was written. It describes the lack of government control of the disease before the 1920s, when help was administered by hospitals run by religious orders. With the creation of the National Department of Public Health in 1921, the Government began to take an interest in leprosy. Through this department, the Inspectorate of the Prophylaxis of Leprosy and Venereal Diseases was established. In the Federal District (Rio de Janeiro at the time), action took the form of a leprosy census, treatment and isolation of affected people in Hospital São Sebastião, while in other parts of the country, existing leprosaria were improved and others were built. After the reform of public health services in 1934, the Inspectorate was dissolved and its activities passed to the Inspectorates of Health Centres and Sanitary Services. In this report are also details on the improvements made to Curupaití.

    Ernani Agrícola and Joaquim Motta collaborated on a Plano de Construção (1935) (GC h 1935.09.02 – rolo 62 fot. 541-3), with the objective of improving existing leprosaria and building others. The typed document of this plan is in the archive; it was published in Archivos de Hygiene, Anno V, No. 1. Included in the piece is a large table showing numbers of leprosy sufferers in each state, as well as a construction plan with financial information for the next three years.

    A typed report (GC pi Weaver, E. 1949.00.00 – rolo 11 fot. 45-47), displaying the stamp of the Federação das Sociedades de Assistência aos Lázaros e Defesa contra a Lepra, describes in detail the phenomenon of ‘preventórios’ in Brazil. These were also known as ‘educandários’, and were institutions for the children of parents with leprosy. The report describes the construction of twenty-six such establishments around the country during the 1930s, and explains the reasons for their existence, describes recommended activities for the children such as sport and leisure, and imparts information concerning the action taken by the Sociedades de Assistência aos Lázaros.

    There is a 1936 report (GC h 1935.09.02 – rolo 62 fot.543-4) on the spending of the Serviço de Lepra, with a breakdown for each state and a short description of construction, medication and aid administered.

    A typed report of 126 pages, with written notes, (GC h 1935.09.02 – rolo 62 fot. 576-618) describes the session of the Comissão de Saúde (Commission of Health), on 11 March 1937. The objective of the meeting is to resolve the question of whether Iguá leprosarium is a federal or a state institution; if the Federal Government are responsible merely for subsidising the establishment, or also administering it. Capanema highlights the fact that when he became Minister of Education and Health in 1934, there was no plan in existence for combating leprosy in Brazil, probably due to a lack of funding. Getúlio Vargas approved all the measures proposed by Capanema’s ministry, and the Federal Government gave the funds to the state health administrations. He adds that as soon as he became Minister, the basis of an anti-leprosy policy was established, but it was only put into practice in 1936. Capanema then talks about Itaboraí leprosarium, and asserts that the Federal Government passed the supervision of its construction to the State, as they did with other leprosaria being built in the mid-1930s. Therefore, these leprosaria are State responsibility, rather than Federal. He also describes his ministry’s plan to combat leprosy as divided into four parts, namely, Research, Census, Legislation, Administration. Later, he talks about an agreement between the Government and the United Nations to set up an International Centre for Leprology, aimed at research. Finally, he covers the plan organised in 1935 by the Directoria Nacional de Saúde e Assistência Médico-Social (National Directorate of Health and Social-Medical Assistance), which proposes the construction of leprosaria in Brazil.

    There is a 1937 bulletin published by the Serviço de Publicidade do Ministério da Educação e Saúde, which features the speech made by Gustavo Capanema at the inauguration of Itanhenga colony on 11 April, 1937. The bulletin also includes a short history of leprosy in Brazil, and a description of anti-leprosy measures taken by Vargas’ Government.

    The seven-page report of the Second Federal Delegation of Health is dated 1 February 1938 (GC h 1935.09.02 – rolo 62 fot. 691-696), and written by Mário de Queiroz. It relates the difficulties with the construction of the new leprosarium in Marituba, Pará, due to its location and the need to transport building materials by river. There is also information on the new colony in Manaus, for which routes and land are being cleared. The report contains seventeen photographs of these works.

    A report (6 June 1939) of a meeting of the Sociedade de Assistência aos Lázaros e Defesa Contra a Lepra relates the pronouncement of the Society’s new President, América Xavier da Silveira, formerly the Vice-President.

    A typed document dated 9 May 1947, by Ernani Agrícola gives information on the leprosaria in the country at the time (GC j 1946.01.19 – rolo 73 fot. 882 – 884). It informs that in 1931 there were fourteen leprosaria in Brazil, most of these being asylums or hospitals and only three being colonies. The colonies under construction are listed, followed by those undergoing improvement. The numerous preventórios are also listed.

    A 1947 report (GC j 1946.01.19 – rolo 73 fot. 885 – 889) from the Government to the Comissão do Plano de Valorização da Economia da Amazônia includes proposals to facilitate leprosy control in Amazonia, involving reforms in the preventório at Goiás, construction of a dispensário at Colatina, Rio Verde, Manaus and a preventório in Espírito Santo.

    A 1949 report by the Serviço Nacional de Lepra relates to financial matters for various leprosy colonies – Padre Bento, Aimorés, Cocais, Santo Ângelo and Pirapitingui. There is also financial information on Dispensário Lapa and Preventório de Jacareí, and data on the allocation of resources to Instituto Butantã for sulphone research. There is a similar report for the following year (1950), which gives financial information for the colonies of Padre Bento, Aimorés, Cocais, Santo Ângelo and Pirapitingui, as well as the dispensaries of Lapa, Santo Ângelo, Campinas, Presidente Prudente and Rancharia; and Preventório de Jacareí.


    Photographs held in this archive include:-

    • An image (GC foto 080) of the laying of the foundation stone at the inauguration of a pavilion/building at Curupaití colony. Amongst those present is minister Gustavo Capanema.
    • Two photos (GC foto 330) from a meal given for Eunice Weaver when she left her position as President of the Associação Contra a Lepra.


    On microfilm (GC h 1935.09.02 – rolo 62 fot.568), a table shows information on the funds allocated to each state for leprosy control 1932-5. The total for each year and the total over the four years is analysed.

    A typed document dated 18 February 1936 (GC h 1935.09.02 – rolo 62 fot. 530-32), written by Pedro Fontes, describes the Serviço de Lepra (in 1927 giving way to the Serviço de Prophilaxia da Lepra e Doenças Venéreas) in the state of Espírito Santo. This Service carried out censuses of leprosy patients, and constructed dispensaries and a leprosarium on an island close to Vitória. The building of Itanhenga colony is also described.

    A document entitled Localização dos leprosários no Brasil (GC h 1935.09.02 – rolo 62 fot. 663-4), dated August 1936, shows that there are leprosaria in nearly every state, and also lists those under construction.

    Stamped by the Directorate of State Sanitary Services, a document written by Ernani Agrícola, dated 21 October 1936, informs that the State Government of Minas Gerais has allocated funds for the fight against leprosy, which also covers construction of leprosaria.

    A typed document from 1937, entitled ‘Lepra’, contains information on the number and location of leprosaria in Brazil, and amounts invested in these during 1934-6. It was only after the start of Capanema’s ministry (1934) that funds were invested in the colony of Curupaití.

    Documentation referring to the Conferência Nacional de Assistência Social aos Leprosos (GC h 1935.09.02 – rolo 62 fot. 737) includes: a letter from Eunice Weaver to Getúlio Vargas on 28 November 1939, in which she informs the President that only the Sociedades de Assistência aos Lázaros can receive public donations to help sufferers and their families; a letter from Souza Araújo to Gustavo Capanema on 30 November 1939, reporting that the Ministry of Education and Health declared the Government’s desire to organise a Central Service to direct the National Leprosy Campaign. Also mentioned are doctors who have recently graduated in leprology at the Universidade do Brasil, and it is suggested that twenty or so be selected to participate in the Campaign. Souza Araújo also lists seventy-eight graduates from the Centro Internacional de Lepra in a document dated 3 November 1939.

    An undated, typed document (GC j 1946.01.19 – rolo 73 fot.938) contains information on the National Department of Public Health, which included the Inspectorate of the Prophylaxis of Leprosy and Venereal Diseases, run by Carlos Chagas, and which was created in 1920.

    There is a document (GC k 1951.01.30 – rolo 86 fot. 756-60) on the regulations of the Ministry of Health, signed by Antônio Balbino and dated 1953. The National Leprosy Service was a subsidiary service within this Ministry.

    Entry made 15 January 2003
    Updated 15, 21 May 2003


    Name Margarete Rosa Tavares
    Organization Fundação Getúlio Vargas
    Address CPDOC - Fundação Getúlio Vargas, Praia de Botafogo, 190 14° Andar - Botafogo, 22253-900 - Rio de Janeiro - RJ - , Brazil.
    Telephone +55 21 2559 5696
    Fax +55 21 2551 2649

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