Hansen’s disease, also known as Leprosy, is caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae and Mycobacterium lepromatosis. The disease, named after physician Gerhard Armauer Hansen, typically presents itself with visible skin lesions, and if left untreated, can progress and cause permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes.
Leprosy may be one of the oldest diseases in history, first documented in an Egyptian papyrus circa 1550 B.C.
In 1921, the United States Public Health Service established the nation’s first “leprosarium,” located in modern day Carville, Louisiana. The leprosarium was a sanctuary of sorts for leprosy patients, as well as an academic and treating hospital for leprosy. What eventually came to be known as “Carville” was a refuge for leprosy patients and a premier center in the efforts to to find a cure for the disease.
Carville’s history predates federal intervention, however. Dr. Isadore Dyer, an established academic figure on the subject of leprosy, helped negotiate the acquisition in 1925 of an area near the Robert Coleman Camp on a tract of land he purchased and quickly converted into a sugar plantation. Around 1857 Dyer built an elegant home on the campus that he used before and after the American Civil War for various purposes, including the treatment of leprosy.
By 1902 the facility housed up to 62 patients. By 1905 the State of Louisiana purchased the property and made some necessary improvements. By 1917, however, the U.S. Public Health Service was looking to establish a site as a treatment center for leprosy, and the federal government assumed operations of the hospital in January 1921.
By 1923 the hospital expanded to house 425 patients, although even with these modern changes, the disease had strong connections with isolation and hopelessness. The hospital was indeed more like a prison in many ways.
After World War II, a number of veteran patients were admitted to Carville. Indeed, the publicity generated by the American Legion on behalf of Carville was perhaps the most influential action in solidifying not only the work at, but the reputation of Carville.
In 1941, the discovery of Promin was shown to cure leprosy, although the treatment involved painful injections. Called the “Miracle of Carville,” Promin led to dapsone pills in the 1950s. Pioneered by Dr. R.G. Cochrane at Carville, dapsone pills eventually became the main treatment for leprosy. Although initially quite successful, the bacteria causing leprosy eventually developed a resistance to the treatment.
A treatment involving multiple drugs appeared in the 1970s, the results of drug trials on the island of Malti. The World Health Organization began recommending this treatment in 1981, which was a combination of three drugs: dapsone, rifampicin, and clofazimine. This treatment could take up to one year, and sometimes longer, depending on the severity of the leprosy infection.
In 1986, the Carville facility became known Gillis W. Long Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy) Center, named after a United States Congressman. During its 100 plus years of dedication to treating the disease, Carville was the home to patients who often spent a majority of their lives on its campus, and sometimes even marrying there.
Carville closed in 1998 after operating for 104 years. The buildings and grounds were transferred to the State of Louisiana in 1998, and a museum honoring the work at Carville remains open to the public.