International Leprosy Association -
History of Leprosy

  • International Leprosy Association -
    History of Leprosy


    Dr Eduard Christian Arning

    Status Physician
    Country Germany


    Eduard Christian Arning, MD (1855-1936) was an English-born bacteriologist and pathologist of German descent who worked for the Hawaii Board of Health.

    After studying medicine for two years at the University of Heidelberg, Arning moved to study at the University of Strasbourg and received his medical degree in 1879. In 1881, Arning became a member of the Dermatological Institute of Berlin. He became interested in leprosy through working with Albert Neisser, who had previously worked with Gerhard Armauer Hansen. Neisser became Arning’s mentor, teaching him techniques learned from Hansen.

    Arning arrived in Hawaii in November, 1883, having received a grant from the Humboldt Institute of the Royal Prussian Academy of Science to study leprosy in Hawaii under the oversight of the Hawaii Board of Health. Arning proceeded with his research, working in a hut on the grounds of the Branch Leper Hospital near Honolulu.

    Inglis (68) describes Arning’s initial leprosy experiments: ‘Arning performed biopsies on living patients and autopsies on the dead; he inoculated a variety of animals, then sacrificed and autopsied them; he examined hundreds of microscope preparations and pursued thousands of attempts to grow Mycobacterium leprae on artificial media; he interviewed patients, treated them, and observed them carefully.’ Arning clashed with the Board of Health’s director, Walter Murray Gibson, over these experiments; Gibson was disappointed in the lack of tangible results, but Arning felt the Board’s funding was insufficient for the experiments he wanted to pursue.

    Arning first visited Molokai in March 1884. On this visit, he examined Father Damien and confirmed that he had contracted leprosy; this diagnosis was verified in early 1885.

    In Arning’s 1884 report to the Board of Health, he took issue with the theory (proposed by Molokai physician George Fitch) that leprosy was a stage of syphilis. He was concerned that this view could exacerbate prejudices against people affected by leprosy, saying that it would be harmful for ‘the public to consider leprosy as an outcome of licentiousness … and to look upon the unfortunate lepers as the victims of their own or their parents’ transgressions’ (quoted in Moblo 56). Arning had been dissatisfied with his previous research on human leprosy patients, since he believed that Native Hawaiians had poor hygiene habits and did not accurately report their own behaviour. George Fitch had earlier proposed that condemned criminals be offered the chance to become human test subjects in order to escape execution, which might offer researchers a chance to study human subjects in a more controlled environment. On August 13, 1884, the Hawaii Board of Health petitioned the King’s Privy Council to allow this option to a convicted murderer named Keanu. At this meeting, Gibson read a statement from Arning asking to experiment on Keanu. The petition was granted, and Arning inoculated Keanu with leprosy on September 30, 1884.

    Arning last examined Keanu on 5 June 1886; soon after, he resigned from the Board of Health due to further conflicts with Gibson and Fred Hayselden, and returned to Germany. Keanu began showing signs of leprosy later that year, twenty-five months after the inoculation. His leprosy was confirmed in 1887. In the British Medical Journal in 1890, Arning reported the experiment as proof that leprosy could be transmitted in humans by inoculation. (At Kalaupapa, Arthur A. Mouritz had earlier tried to inoculate fifteen volunteer subjects with leprosy, but none of them contracted leprosy.)

    S.B. Swift, resident physician at Kalawao, cast doubt on the success of Arning’s inoculation by reporting that some of Keanu’s relatives had had leprosy before the inoculation. This contradicted Arning’s claim that he had made inquiries among members of Keanu’s family and was satisfied that none of them had leprosy. Swift also pointed out that the jailer at the Oahu Jail, Malaihi, had also had leprosy before Keanu’s arrival.

    After leaving Hawaii for Germany, Arning practiced as a dermatologist and venereologist in Hamburg. He became Professor of Dermatology at the University of Hamburg when it opened in 1919.

    Arning was an amateur photographer, and took many pictures to document his travels in Hawaii. A collection of 237 prints derived from his glass plates, including some taken at Molokai, is held by the Hawaiian Historical Society and known as the Arning Collection.


    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. ‘Ethnic Intercession: Leadership at Kalaupapa Leprosy Colony, 1871-1887.’ Pacific Studies 22.2 (1999): 27-69.

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