History
Fact-checked

At HistoricalIndex, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.

Learn more...

What is a Leper Colony?

A leper colony is a community specifically designed for the care and isolation of people with leprosy, aiming to provide medical support and reduce transmission. Historically, these colonies were places of both sanctuary and segregation. Today, they stand as reminders of our evolving understanding of disease and compassion. How have perceptions and treatments transformed? Join us to explore this journey.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A leper colony is a community designed for the purpose of quarantining people with leprosy, a chronic condition caused by a bacterial infection. Formally organized leper colonies have existed since at least the Middle Ages, with some leper communities isolating themselves by choice prior to the medieval period. A handful of leper colonies can still be seen around the world, although access to such colonies is no longer restricted, and the occupants are free to leave, should they so desire.

The idea of isolating people with leprosy, better known as Hansen's Disease, stemmed from a fear of people with disfigurements which was extremely widespread in the Middle Ages. Medieval society also feared lepers because people thought the condition was contagious. Leper colonies were designed to keep lepers isolated inside so that they would not come into contact with the rest of society, although an imperfect understanding of leprosy led to the internment of people with a range of medical conditions, not just leprosy, in such colonies historically.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

In the 20th century, research on leprosy revealed that it is, in fact, very difficult to get Hansen's Disease, and the bulk of the world's population is immune. Furthermore, researchers discovered a range of treatment options for the disease. As a result, many leper colonies closed, because there was no longer a perceived need for such facilities. However, some communities of people with leprosy chose to remain at the sites of their former colonies with friends, family members, and a familiar environment.

The conditions in a leper colony could be quite varied. Some colonies were essentially like small villages, and although they happened to be in remote, isolated locations, the residents experienced fairly pleasant living conditions. In other cases, a leper colony could be a very grim place, with lack of access to suitable housing, poor conditions for farming, and limited opportunities for support from the surrounding community. In both cases, the fact that residents were not allowed to leave the leper colony would have been chafing, to say the least.

Historically, if a leper needed to venture out of the leper colony for any reason, he or she would need to ring a bell or wear some sort of noisemaking object to alert people, much like one puts a bell on a cat. The idea was that citizens who feared infection could scatter at the sound, although the experience was undoubtedly also designed to be humiliating to discourage lepers from trading with the outside world and wandering in the general community. Lepers were also forced to use different money than the rest of the population, and most leper colonies relied heavily upon charity from religious organizations and friendly citizens to survive.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a leper colony?

A leper colony is a specialized community designed to isolate and provide care for people suffering from leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease. Historically, due to the stigma and the fear of contagion, these colonies were often located on remote islands or in secluded areas. Patients received medical treatment, albeit limited by the period's understanding of the disease, and lived apart from the general population to prevent the spread of the illness.

How were leper colonies established and maintained?

Leper colonies were typically established by government mandates or religious organizations. They were maintained through a combination of public funding, charitable donations, and the work of medical professionals and volunteers. In some cases, patients contributed to the upkeep by performing tasks within the colony. The colonies functioned as self-contained communities with their own institutions, including churches, hospitals, and sometimes even courts.

Are there still leper colonies today?

While leprosy is now a curable disease with multi-drug therapy, a few leper colonies still exist, primarily in developing countries where access to healthcare is limited. According to the World Health Organization, over 200,000 new cases of leprosy were reported globally in 2019. Some former colonies have transitioned into communities for the disabled or have been preserved as historical sites.

What was life like for individuals in leper colonies?

Life in leper colonies varied widely, but many residents experienced a combination of medical care and social isolation. The quality of life depended on the resources available and the management of the colony. While some colonies had harsh conditions and were places of neglect, others provided a sense of community and purpose for their residents, who could no longer live in mainstream society due to the stigma associated with leprosy.

How has the treatment and perception of leprosy changed over time?

The treatment and perception of leprosy have significantly evolved. Once considered a life sentence, leprosy is now a treatable condition with a course of antibiotics. The stigma has lessened, but not entirely disappeared. Global health initiatives aim to eliminate the disease, with the World Health Organization providing free treatment since 1995. Early diagnosis and treatment have made compulsory isolation in leper colonies an outdated practice.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

You might also Like

Discussion Comments

Lostnfound

Reading about erstwhile leper colonies can be heartbreaking. No one in their society cared anything about these people, and many of them suffered greatly.

Often, the missionaries brought trained medical personnel with them to help give the people some relief from their conditions.

Grivusangel

Many missionaries worked in leper colonies, and sometimes, were the people's only source of medical, humanitarian or spiritual help. Most of the people in the leper colonies had been exiled from their homes and families, and conditions were rarely of the pleasant kind. No one with the wherewithal to do so had any incentive to make the colonies pleasant for the inmates.

Post your comments
Login:
Forgot password?
Register:
    • Woman with hand on her hip
      Woman with hand on her hip