Louisiana Was Home to the Only ‘Leper Colony’ Left in the U.S. Until 2015 – And You Can Visit
Leprosy seems like a medieval disease that has long been eradicated. That isn't so, and the last colony just so happened to be right here in Louisiana. Oh, and you can visit!
What is Leprosy?
First things first. What is leprosy? Hansen's Disease, or leprosy, is defined by the CDC as "an infection caused by slow-growing bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae. It can affect the nerves, skin, eyes, and lining of the nose (nasal mucosa). With early diagnosis and treatment, the disease can be cured. People with Hansen’s disease can continue to work and lead an active life during and after treatment."
The CDC goes on to say that leprosy was once feared to be highly contagious and devastating. However, what we now know is that it is not easily transmittable and we have very effective treatment.
However, if left untreated, the nerve damage may cause crippling of hands and feet, paralysis, and blindness.
While we've learned so much about the transmission and treatments, the stigma of leprosy is still high. Even as late as 2008, Heath Ledger's Joker mentions it in a now legendary speech in The Dark Knight, saying, "...they'll cast you out, like a leper!"
Leper Colony in Louisiana
The colony was located in Carville, Louisiana, just 16 miles south of Baton Rouge, along the Mississippi River.
The institute, or leprosarium, that was established in Carville went through many name changes in its over 100 years of activity, leaving many to just refer to it as Carville.
An abandoned sugar plantation became the Louisiana Leper Home, which opened in 1894, and was first occupied by seven patients, all coming from New Orleans. It was the first, and only in-patient hospital in the U.S. for the treatment of leprosy. The goal was for lepers to be isolated, and treated humanely. It was known as "a place of refuge, not reproach; a place of treatment and research, not detention," offering hope and comfortable refuge from society.
By 1896, there were 31 patients at the home where four nuns from the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul cared for them.
The U.S. Public Health Service took over the home in 1921.They were able to put forth more money for leprosy research and funding. While there, patient Stanley Stein, who was known as "Carville's Crusader" started a two-page newsletter in 1931. It eventually grew into The STAR, a world-renowned newspaper.
Leprosy never became an epidemic in Louisiana. The most residents Carville ever had was 400 people.
Due to the stigma surrounding leprosy, patients who arrived at Carville were often encouraged to change their name. Like Stanley Stein that you previously read about, who was born Sidney Maurice Levyson. They had very limited contact with outside family. Even staff members at Carville seldom knew the patients real name, or where they were from.
When a patient died at Carville, they could be buried in the leprosarium's graveyard if the family couldn't afford to bring the body home. They were given headstones with their name, whether real or pseudonym, and their case number.
By the early 1990's, the leprosarium was receiving $21 million annually. With fewer patients, and an advancement in leprosy treatment, the hospital lost it's funding, and closed in 1999. The studies and treatments moved to, and continue in, Baton Rouge.
As of 2001, there were 15 cases of leprosy in Louisiana. Of those 15, 13 of the cases were regularly found in a certain area, or endemic, mostly coming from the southern half of the state.
In 1999, when the U.S. Congress passed a bill to relocate the Center to Baton Rouge, the Federal Government quickly returned the site back to the State of Louisiana.
The site is now the National Hansen's Disease Museum. It is occupied by the Louisiana National Guard, who operate a boot-camp style school for at-risk youth. Aside from the museum, up until 2015, the grounds remained home to a few elderly residents who chose to remain after the hospital's official closing.
If you're interested in visiting the museum, some things you'll see are:
- 100 Years of Carville History timeline
- U.S. Public Health Service
- Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul
- Stanley Stein & The Star Magazine
- Site History of Carville
- Highlights of Our History
- A Patient’s Room, circa 1940’s
- Medical Adaptations & Treatment
- Laboratory Research
- Patients’ Stories & Advocacy
- Carville Culture: Organizations, Activities & Entertainment
- Federal Civil Service Employees
- Hansen’s Disease Ready Reference
It is noted that if you're planning a visit, this is on a military base. So, make sure you go through the main entrance, and bring a form of identification.