International Leprosy Association -
History of Leprosy

  • International Leprosy Association -
    History of Leprosy


    Father Joseph Damien de Veuster

    Status Medical Missionary
    Country Belgium


    Father Damien, born Joseph de Veuster (January 3, 1840 – April 15, 1889) was a Belgian priest who worked as a missionary at the Molokai leprosy settlement.

    Damien joined the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 1858, following in his brother’s footsteps, and was sent to Hawaii in 1863. He was ordained in Honolulu in 1864, and spent years working in the parishes of Puna, Kohala, and Hamakua. During this time, he observed the hardships faced by people affected by leprosy and the families left behind due to the Hawaiian government’s policy of forced isolation on Molokai Island.

    In 1873, Father Damien and other priests discussed how to serve the Catholics on Molokai, and it was agreed that Damien and three other priests would take turns spending three months each at Molokai. Damien volunteered to be first. Upon his arrival on 10 May 1873, residents presented a petition asking that a priest be stationed at Molokai permanently. Within two days, Damien notified his superiors that he had decided to stay; he would continue living there until his death in 1889.

    A month later, Damien travelled back to Honolulu to obtain supplies and raise funds for the settlement. This visit provoked controversy, as only Hawaii Board of Health officials were allowed to travel back and forth from the Kalawao settlement. Kalawao residents protested that Damien should be subject to the same restrictions as they were. Damien was subsequently restricted to the Kalawao settlement, and was not allowed even to take missionary trips to other parts of Molokai island. However, by November 1873, after petitions from religious leaders, the Board of Health changed its position to allow physicians and missionaries to travel to and from Kalawao.

    Damien provided medical care as well as serving as a priest to Kalawao residents. In his reports to the Board of Health, he outlined the poor conditions in the settlement and the need for warm clothing and for medicine. He pursued building projects and made improvements to food and water supplies.

    Contemporary and later accounts of Damien’s life praise him for his empathy, spirit, and tireless support of people affected by leprosy. However, his interaction with the Kalawao residents was not without conflict, as Moblo argues. In 1878, he temporarily served as administrator of the colony, but was removed at the request of the patients, who complained to the Board of Health.

    In 1881, Damien was appointed as a Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalakaua (The King) for his "efforts in alleviating the distresses and mitigating the sorrows of the unfortunate". Because few other medical staff were available, Damien insisted on continuing to care for leprosy patients even when he was exhausted and in ill health, ignoring warnings about contagion. Staff and residents of the colony who knew Damien remarked that he always seemed calm and unconcerned about the risk of contracting leprosy. He had contracted leprosy by 1884; this diagnosis was confirmed by Eduard Arning, and officially verified in 1885. On 30 March 1886, he was officially registered as an inmate of Kalaupapa. After his diagnosis, he wrote, ‘I remain calm, resigned, and very happy in the midst of my people’ (quoted in Law 171).

    Damien died on 15 April 1889. In 1936, his body was moved to Louvain, Belgium, and interred in the crypt of the church of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts.

    In 1965, he was nominated by Hawaii for a place of honour in the National Statuary Hall in Washington DC. The Catholic Church recognises Father Damien as a saint. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1995 and canonised by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. He is considered a patron saint for people affected by leprosy and for the state of Hawaii.


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

    Inglis, Kerri A. Ma‘i Lepera: A History of Leprosy in Nineteenth-Century Hawai‘i. University of Hawaii Press, 2013. Web.

    Law, Anwei Skinsnes. Kalaupapa: A Collective Memory. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2012. Web.

    Moblo, Pennie. "Blessed Damien of Moloka'i: The Critical Analysis of Contemporary Myth." Ethnohistory 44.4 (1997): 691-726. Web.

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