International Leprosy Association -
History of Leprosy

  • International Leprosy Association -
    History of Leprosy


    Dr Carlos Chagas

    Status Physician
    Country Brazil


    Carlos Chagas, MD (1879-1934) was a renowned Brazilian medical researcher best known for his discovery of American trypanosomiasis, or Chagas disease. He also made contributions to leprosy research.

    He studied at the School of Medicine in Rio de Janeiro from 1897 to 1903, earning his doctoral degree for his thesis 'Hematological Studies of Malaria' under the direction of Oswaldo Cruz. Cruz nominated him as a research assistant at Rio de Janeiro's Institute of Manguinhos, later the Oswaldo Cruz Institute (Instituto Oswaldo Cruz). In 1905 and in 1907, Chagas was sent to investigate and control malaria outbreaks in several Brazilian communities. This field research led to his discovery of Chagas disease in 1909. His publication of these findings earned him worldwide fame and recognition in the medical community.

    Chagas chaired the First American Congress on Leprosy in 1916. Upon the death of Oswaldo Cruz in 1917, Chagas became director of the Oswaldo Cruz Institute, and retained that position until until his death. He headed Brazil's National Department of Public Health in the 1920s and early 1930s, and helped establish the country's policy of compulsory isolation of leprosy patients. Under Chagas, the Oswaldo Cruz Institute worked closely with one of these institutions, the Curupaití Colony Hospital, which was established in 1928. The Institute produced large quantities of chaulmoogra oil for therapeutic studies and for the treatment of these patients.

    Around 1930, Chagas proposed the establishment of an international centre for leprosy research in Brazil, with funding and guidance from the League of Nations. In the following years, a committee of leprologists was formed, and arrangements for the research centre were made between the Brazilian Government and the League of Nations. The International Center of Leprology was established in 1934, with Chagas as its director. However, he died of a heart attack later the same year. The Center continued to operate until 1939.

    Throughout his career, Chagas published many studies on tropical diseases, including leprosy, and his efforts were recognised with many honourary titles and degrees. He was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize for Medicine (in 1913 and 1921), though he was never awarded it.

    Both of Chagas's sons went on to become eminent medical researchers: Evandro Chagas, like his father, specialised in tropical medicine, while Carlos Chagas Filho was a neuroscientist.


    International Journal of Leprosy, Centennial Festskrift edition, Vol 41, No 2. 1973.

    'Leprosy News'. International Journal of Leprosy Vol 2, No 1. Jan-Mar 1934.

    Avelleira JCR, Bernardes-Filho F, Quaresma MV, Vianna FR. 'History of leprosy in Rio de Janeiro'. An Bras Dermatol. 2014;89(3):515-8. Online.

    Fernando Sergio Dumas dos Santos; Letícia Pumar Alves de Souza; Antonio Carlos Siani 'Chaulmoogra oil as scientific knowledge: the construction of a treatment for leprosy'. Hist. cienc. saude-Manguinhos vol.15 no.1 Rio de Janeiro Jan./Mar. 2008

    Moncayo, Álvaro. 'Carlos Chagas: Biographical sketch.' Acta tropica 2010, Volume: 115 Issue: 1 Page: 1-4.

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