International Leprosy Association -
History of Leprosy

  • International Leprosy Association -
    History of Leprosy

    Fontilles (Spain)

    Following years of failed attempts at erecting a hospital for the increasing number of leprosy patients in the Marina Alta area on the Levantine coast in eastern Spain during the last decades of the 19th century, a colony/sanatorium (colonia/sanatorio) was established in the valley of Laguar. The site had to be in a remote place, have plenty of fresh water supplies, be surrounded by hills covered with pines to protect it from the northern winds, and have a view towards the Mediterranean sea. (The negotiations to buy the land provide in itself a dramatic chapter, underlining the stigma and fear of leprosy. In this area, the fear was that the muscatel grapes, much desired for Christmas by the British, should become contaminated.)

    That which the central government and local politicians could not bring about, became possible thanks to the Jesuit priest, Carlos Ferrís from Albal (Valencia).

    It all started on the 15th of December 1901 when Padre Ferrís was going to give a sermon in Tormos, a village in the Marina Alta. He was staying with a friend, the lawyer Joaquín Ballester who was known as a great philanthropist. While they were talking after supper, they heard wailing from the neighbouring house. The host told the visitor that it was the wailing of Bautista Perelló, who lived next door and who had leprosy but had no one to look after him. Ballester used to put out food for him.  Padre Ferrís then came to learn about the great number of affected persons in the area and under what miserable conditions they existed: some lived in caves, some in shacks in sordid conditions; all had been abandoned by their families. This made a tremendous impact on him, and he had the idea for the ambitious project of a hospital for people with leprosy, and his friend and host was fired by the same idea.

    The following day they visited the sick neighbour, and then they set off immediately to realise their plan. Carlos Ferrís and Joaquín Ballester managed to generate enthusiasm and interest among their wide network of influential connections and friends, and in 1904, the plans were ready and the financial means provided — all from private donations, including the Jesuit brotherhood — for what was to become Fontilles. It took another 5 years before the hospital was inaugurated and the first 8 patients were admitted on the 17th of January 1909.  The Jesuits (SJ – Society of Jesus) took administrative and spiritual charge of the sanatorium with the help of the Franciscan nuns (Hermanas terciarias Franciscanas), all of whom have formed the backbone of the sanatorium up to the present day, with the exception of the years of the republic and  the civil war (1932 – 1939).

    In order to prevent patients from escaping, and owing to protests from neighbouring villages, a nine-foot-tall, two-foot-thick and two-mile-long wall was erected, which took seven years to build, and which remains a landmark to this very day.

    In 1929, Dr. Pedro Albal, the resident doctor, received a prize for his scientific work “Estudio científico de las modernas terapéuticas de la lepra” (A scientific study of modern therapeutics of leprosy). Fontilles grew and became internationally renowned.  In 1928, the pavilion Santa Isabel for men, easily recognizable with its four towers, the logotype to this day of Fontilles, was inaugurated with 200 beds.

    The story of Fontilles during the Spanish Republic and the Spanish Civil War is complicated and provides in itself a mirror of political, economic, sociological and (non)religious movements in the country at large. The religious orders were removed, numerous changes introduced, many of which were very beneficial. At the end of the conflict (1939), the religious orders were re-installed, although the health aspect continued to be under state control until the state resigned and inaugurated Trillo in Guadalajara in 1943, while Tafira in Las Palmas had been opened in 1932.  Following the war, the team of Fontilles experienced an intense revival of interest in the study and research of leprosy, following the abundant increase in diagnosed cases. At its height, Fontilles had up to 400 patients. The place was largely self-sufficient and the patients worked the land, ran the bakery, had butchers, a shoe-maker, book-binding bar and restaurant, cinema and theatre, which have left hilarious as well as deeply moving memories and anecdotes. Of great importance, Fontilles houses a large library and a laboratory where research is currently carried out in collaboration with different universities.

    Sanatorio San Francisco de Borja is the last leprosy colony in Europe which treats patients (in 2005, it was reduced to about 60 residents and about 250 through in ambulatory treatment). At the same time, it has set up and supervises many ambulatory clinics around the world, coupled with intense research.  Since 1944, it has published a quarterly scientific journal, Revista de Leprología. Since education is seen as a fundamental factor in the battle against leprosy, yearly training courses have been given each autumn to doctors, particularly dermatologists, psychologists and paramedics, since 1948. From 1958, these courses came under the auspices of the Order of Malta. Fontilles became a member of ILEP in 1969. In 1997, Fontilles was chosen by the prestigious journal El Médico to be ‘Hospital of the Year’.

    A few years ago, threatening cracks were discovered in the structure of the old and beautiful building housing the laboratory and the library with the adjoining auditorium. It was quickly closed down. The books remained unavailable for quite a time (it contains amongst other valuable material, case material from 2600 patients, according to Padre Almiñana). The original building still remains untouched, due to lack of funding, but slowly old buildings which had been closed down are being transformed and turned into a well functioning library, laboratory and auditorium respectively, though now in separate buildings. Fontilles now welcomes visitors (not inside the hospital) to its beautiful grounds, and it is often visited and shown to foreigners as well as local school classes and organizations.

    Books with documentation on the history of Fontilles:

    Ballester y Ferrís, Caridad Heroica.  Valencia, 1904. (Heroic Charity)

    A wonderful document which transmits the atmosphere of the times (beginning of the last century), from a marvellous collections of legends and stories, going back to  finding the site for the sanatorium, original plans, preparing for water reservoirs, and negotiations with neighbouring land holders. The book has/had a noble appearance and was handed out to influential people in the search for donors. Among those receiving the book were the royal family and the Holy See, who gave their warmest approval.

    José Terencio de Las Aguas, La Lepra – pasado, presente y futuro.

    Generalitat Valenciana, 1999. (Leprosy – Past, Present and Future.)

    Contains a historical part and a medical part, including the development of Fontilles the last half of the 20th century, with detailed information presented in diagrams about distribution and intake of patients throughout the country.

    Pedro Miguel Lamet, Un Hombre para los Demás: Joaquín Ballester Lloret – Fundador de Fontilles. Belacqva, 2005. (A Man for Others)

    This biography gives an understanding of how the process of building Fontilles came to branch out into all sectors of society, socio-political, economic/ agricultural, and not least religious. (The process of canonization of  Joaquín Ballester was started in 2003).

    Monthly journal: ‘Fontilles lucha contra la Lepra’ (Fontilles fights leprosy). (

    Goes back to the early 1920’s – no volumes found from 1932 (the beginning of the Republic) and 1940 (end of Civil War).

    Novels set in Fontilles or inspired by it:

    Padre Solana, Los Amo hasta el Fin (I love them until the end).

    Adro Xavier, Almas Hundidas (Lost Souls)

    Gabriel Miró, Del Vivir (On Life)

    —–, El Obispo Leproso (The Bishop with Leprosy)

    Miguel Signes, Martin el Leproso


    Text supplied by Kirsten Milnes, May 2005, including an interview with Padre Almiñana, then director of Fontilles, in 1999 (Kirsten Milnes)

    Terencio de Las Aguas, “La lepra – pasado, presente y futuro.” (Leprosy – past, present and future)