History of National Leprosarium presented at Donaldsonville Library

Darian Graivshark
Timeline of leprosy part 1 and 2 presented at the Ascension Parish Library in Donaldsonville, Louisiana on April 27.

Saturday, April 27, Elizabeth Schexnayder presented information on the story of Leprosy, as well as the National Hansen's Disease Museum.

Housed in the Carville Historic District, the museum (with five remaining patients, more than 1,000 graves, and buildings occupied by the National Guard) reminds us of the once thriving, quarantined community.

Carville is a small town lost in the farmlands, and it is where hundreds of the nation's Leprosy patients were quarantined from society. It was here, in 1941, that they discovered the cure for Leprosy, which is now called Hansen's Disease. The disease is cured with the healing powers of sulfone drug therapy.

If the disease is left untreated, the bacterium that causes leprosy can lead to peripheral nerve damage, blindness, limit mobility, and cause skin problems. Despite what's been made of the disease, it isn't actually very contagious. Ninety-five percent of the population is unable to catch the disease.

Who took care of the patients while they were in Carville? Four Catholic Daughters of Charity St. Vincent de Paul, who arrived in 1896. These sisters took the patients into their care, which began what was to become a 109-year commitment. They stayed until April of 2005.

In 1920, the federal government ended up buying the land for $35,000 dollars and turned it into a National Leprosarium.

The site was turned into, essentially, a complex that housed 450 patients in buildings that were linked by covered walkways. In the 1940's, it became its own self-sustaining community with its own power plant, drainage, sewer system, and 70-bed infirmary. There was also a church, theater, golf course, and ballroom. Patients could even fish at the man-made lake.

Although it may sound great, with all of the events, it wasn't a choice to live at Carville. Patients were called inmates and, more often than not, sent there against their will.

Eventually, the gates of the Leprosarium were unlocked in 1946. This was after the rush of drug innovations began due to the discovery of the sulfone therapy. Although, patients were only able to leave the premises for two months out of the year.

By the 1980's, Hansen's disease officially became an outpatient treatment.

There are still roughly, about 150 new cases in the United States every year. However, with early detection, drug treatment, and rehabilitation, doctors can mitigate the once crippling disease.

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