And the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and the hair of his head shall go loose, and he shall cover his upper lip, and shall cry, unclean, unclean
September 7, 2003 9:11 PM   Subscribe

The locals simply called it Carville. Known more formally as the The Gillis W. Long Hansen's Disease Center, it was transformed in July 2000 into The National Hansen's Disease Museum. What is Hansen's Disease? You may know it better by its biblical name - Leprosy. From the founding of the National Leprosarium in 1917 until the hospital closed in 1998, The stories of the people of Carville, their isolation, and finally their fight for civil rights combine to make one of the most important stories in American public health history.
posted by anastasiav (15 comments total)
 
Quoting from the Houston Chronicle story
For decades, people from around the country arrived in shackles, some accompanied by armed guards, wrenched from parents, spouses and children. They lost their jobs, lost even the right to take public transportation or use a public restroom. Most of those who had children after moving to Carville were forced to give them up for adoption. Strict public-health laws, grounded in fear and unproven by science, ruled every aspect of their lives. Some managed to keep their diagnosis hidden, but once it was disclosed, they lost the freedoms most Americans took for granted. The right to vote was restored to Carville's residents in 1946, and by the time Ramirez arrived in 1968, the laws had relaxed enough that his was considered a voluntary admission. But Texas required anyone diagnosed with Hansen's to seek treatment, and the only treatment center in the continental United States was in Carville. It was a self-contained community of more than 400 residents, a place of hope and healing. There was a fishing lake and a nine-hole golf course, a landfill, power station and canteen. A voting precinct. A morgue. But it was also a prison in some respects, and people who left without permission were often forced to return.
posted by anastasiav at 9:14 PM on September 7, 2003


Ewww... this fascinating post lead me to find a page of pictures of the gruesomely infected...
posted by rhruska at 9:29 PM on September 7, 2003


The Hansen's Disease link indicates that the connection between leprosy and Hanson's disease is erroneous.
posted by rhruska at 9:37 PM on September 7, 2003


The Hansen's Disease link indicates that the connection between leprosy and Hanson's disease is erroneous.

Well, yes and no. What the link actually says is that Hansen's is "erroneously associated with biblical leprosy", mostly because no one is sure really what disease or diseases that the authors of the bible thought of as leprosy. The descriptions of leprosy from biblical times are so widely diverse that they seem to include everything from eczema to acne to a true bacterial disease. Check out this link for a differing historical view (with historical illustrations).
posted by anastasiav at 9:48 PM on September 7, 2003


No, rhruska, you've misread a confusing comment: Hansen's disease is the same thing as leprosy. What we know today is that what former biblical translations called leprosy must have been something else; indeed, modern leprosy may not have appeared in the Middle East at the time of the Old Testament (though it had by the era of the New).

Also, leprosy is one disease for which thalidomide remains useful.

An interesting side note here is that the Federal entity responsible for the hospital is the United States Public Health Service, which is one of the seven uniformed services, and are subject to military-style activation in the event of emergencies. By custom, they buy the same uniforms as the Navy, and carry rank insignia (though USPHS has no non-commissioned ranks). The head of the agency, of course, is the Surgeon General, often mistakenly assumed to be a military doctor, or worse, putting on airs by wearing the uniform and insignia of a Vice Admiral. To keep professionalism in mind, they are required to attend work in uniform once a month (the same day). The name may be cumbersome, but the agency actually dates back to 1798, providing medical care for merchant seamen. Homeland Security threats may lead to an expansion of the PHS role and the addition of warrant officer ranks.
posted by dhartung at 10:26 PM on September 7, 2003


Semi-OT: when I was a child in catechism class, one of the nuns offered this advice:

Repel evil as a live leper.

Yes, it's a palindrome. It is also a pretty un-Christian attitude. I mean, wasn't Jesus supposed to have helped the sick rather than shun them?

In my innocence, I made the mistake of asking about this in class. You may be sure that the nun was not pleased.
posted by SPrintF at 10:34 PM on September 7, 2003


I'm sorry, but 'Carville' and 'Disease' conjures up only one image for me, and it's bald.
posted by HTuttle at 11:53 PM on September 7, 2003


HTuttle:
james
Boo!
posted by wendell at 12:02 AM on September 8, 2003


The only thing that leprosy brings to my mind is Thomas Covenant.
posted by davidmsc at 3:47 AM on September 8, 2003


Nice links, dhartung. Thanks for adding them.
posted by anastasiav at 6:10 AM on September 8, 2003


I'm sorry, but 'Carville' and 'Disease' conjures up only one image for me, and it's bald.
HTuttle

Not a bad comparison, actually. I grew up about 15 miles from Carville--as did James. I don't know how/if his family is related to the town's namesake, however.

Thanks for the links. Louisiana history never ceases to amaze me. . .
posted by ajr at 7:23 AM on September 8, 2003


Leprosy IS aka Hansen's disease.

Some musings from Harrison's:

"Although [the causative agent, Mycobacterium leprae] has not been cultivated in artificial media or tissue culture, it can be propagated in armadillos and in the foot pads of mice[!]....there are probably 10 to 20 million persons affected with leprosy in the world....It is humbling to realize how little is known concerning the modes of transmission and acquisition of leprosy, given that the communicable nature of the infection has been recognized for millennia and that the etiologic agent was identified over 100 years ago. Direct human-to-human transmission is believed responsible for most cases of leprosy, although a history of prior exposure can be elicited from fewer than half of all patients. Animal reservoirs exist among feral armadillos and possibly among nonhuman primates, but in only a few human cases has zoonotic transmission been implicated...the incubation period is frequently 3 to five years...leprosy is probably the most freqent cause of crippling of the hand in the world...blindness is also common..."

In passing, note that thalidomide, an antiinflammatory and immunomodulating compound, is used to treat a reactional state of leprosy (erythema nodosum leprosum). Mainstays of leprosy chemotherapy continue to be the antimycobacterials dapsone (which unlike thalidomide is safe in pregnancy), rifampin, and clofazimine.

People never really seem to learn. In our society, the new "lepers" became those infected with HIV....and along with other "lepers" like addicts and the mentally-ill, often continue to be ignorantly segregated into new "Carvilles".
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 11:38 AM on September 8, 2003


SPrintF:
I don't typically defend the Catholic Church (or any other religious entitiy), but any discussion on Hansen's disease would be incomplete without mentioning Father Damien, whose attitude toward lepers stood in stark contrast not only to the nuns of your youth, but just about everyone else in the world at the time.

On preview: for anyone who wonders why M. leprae has such unusual hosts, it is because it needs slightly lower than normal body temperature to survive; armadillos have a low body temp as mammals go, and the most commonly infected hands, feet, and nose are the coldest parts of the human body.
posted by TedW at 11:58 AM on September 8, 2003


I grew up about 15 miles from Carville--as did James. I don't know how/if his family is related to the town's namesake, however.

James Carville is the grandson of the man after whom Carville, Louisiana was named.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:59 PM on September 8, 2003


[this is good] - thanks for the interesting post and links, anastasiav!
posted by madamjujujive at 10:24 AM on September 9, 2003


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