International Leprosy Association -
History of Leprosy

  • International Leprosy Association -
    History of Leprosy


    William Hillebrand

    Status Physician
    Country Germany


    William Hillebrand (1821-1886) was a physician and botanist who helped develop the Hawaiian government’s policy of isolation for people affected by leprosy.

    Hillebrand was born in Germany (then Prussia) on November 13, 1821. He moved to Hawaii in 1850, seeking a warmer climate due to his own tuberculosis. He was dismayed to learn of the epidemic of syphilis in Hawaii, and critical of the missionaries’ attempts at controlling it. In a report in Transactions of the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society in 1855, he called on readers to donate to help build more hospitals for the sick (Archer 532). In 1856, he founded the Hawaiian Medical Society along with nine other physicians. In 1858, he was appointed royal physician to the royal family of King Kamehameha IV.

    In the 1860s, leprosy was rapidly spreading in Hawaii, and Hillebrand advocated in 1862 for the Legislature to find ‘some efficient, and at the same time, humane measure’ by which to isolate people affected by leprosy (Law 17). This led to the establishment of the Kalaupapa and Kalawao leprosy settlements on Molokai Island in 1866.

    In 1865, Hillebrand travelled to Asia and the East Indies on behalf of the Hawaiian government, where he sought to learn about the latest treatments for leprosy. He visited Molokai for the first time in 1870, and reported on the ‘dirty and neglected’ state of the colony, and the need for more soap and medicine. He also advised that a white man should be installed as director, believing that financial matters ‘could not be entrusted safely to any native’ (Law 58).

    Hillebrand returned to Germany in 1871, and died in Heidelberg in 1886.


    Archer, Seth. "Remedial Agents: Missionary Physicians and the Depopulation of Hawai'i." Pacific Historical Review 79.4 (2010): 513-44. Web.

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

    Singeo, Winnie. “German doctor’s botanical legacy still thrives.” The Honolulu Advertiser. 6 May 2006. Web.

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