International Leprosy Association -
History of Leprosy

  • International Leprosy Association -
    History of Leprosy


    Translated from Wolfgang U Eckart, Medizin and Kolonialimperialismus: Deutschland 1884-1945 pp 152-161 by Ms Helga Patrikios

    Until 1900 there were no firm figures for the prevalence of leprosy in Togo, the smallest of the Second German Reich’s colonies. The district doctor, Wilhelm Wendland, conducted a survey and discovered 100 cases in 24 villages. On the basis of this, he estimated a total of 1 000 cases with 1.3 -1.5% morbidity in the district. In Wendland’s view, the disease was introduced from the north by Sudanese traders – and, given the strict isolation practiced by all tribes, could not have originated at the coast. []

    He wanted was to settle people with leprosy on a little island, where escape would be easily discouraged – even though he conceded that there were no suitable islands, let alone sufficient manpower to ensure isolation “in amicable ways”.

    The administrators eventually rejected plans for a large central settlement for isolating 1 000 leprosy patients. They recognised how strongly people were attached to remaining in their homes and with their families. As Wendland saw it, patients would escape, would be concealed from the eyes of Europeans and particularly of officials, with far worse consequences. Isolation could be achieved by force and maintained under constant supervision at high costs in the long term.

    As an alternative, the chiefs of the affected tribes were urged to isolate the patients, systematically, outside the villages, to forbid marriage, or the handling of any foodstuffs, and to entrust the care of patients to their healthy relatives.

    European officials were encouraged to maintain lists of leprosy cases; the government employed a doctor who would devote himself exclusively to monitoring, surveying and care of the leprosy cases.

    In 1904, a newly arrived doctor, Hintze, found the disease in almost every village. He was convinced that leprosy would be gradually wiped out in Togo through effective isolation.

    Between Lome and Bagida, on the coast of Togo, the first of several colonies was opened on 25 December 1906. This was to serve as a model for many other leprosy colonies throughout Togo, and to be self-sustaining through horticulture and cattle farming. From a European point of view, this was a thoroughly progressive plan, combining the advantages of decentralisation with leprosy care appropriate to current tribal conditions. But there remained the danger that from the point of view of the people that it would be judged entirely negatively, since it failed to observe the traditional forms of leprosy care. It also artificially restricted even further the already reduced tribal contacts through confinement within the village. People were also suspicious that the colonisers wanted to confine them to work.

    On the 31-plus hectare estate, most land was laid out for cultivation by inmates; a narrow strip was for homes for the projected 200 cases in their leprosy village, with a “leprosy-free” section for guards and nurses, an examination room, a laboratory, a section for “suspects” (4 large “little houses”), another actual patients section (the “usual grass huts”). The plan was that people would live under conditions similar to those of their home villages, and above all, that they were not to be forcefully isolated. The intention was that they should feel “heimisch” (at home), work the land, and thus plant so much that from the yields they would be able to meet their own needs for a whole year.