Leprosy has a fascinating history and a rich philatelic documentation

Leprosy is a disease of stigma, because of the potential late stage disfigurement which may involve the face and extremities, Bill Dibb explains.

At the same time, it awakens a morbid fascination and dread, as shown by early 20th century postcards of  ‘leper colonies’ and ‘lepers’ with severe disease. (Today, the term ‘persons afflicted with leprosy’ is used.)

Religion has always been closely tied to leprosy. The disease is mentioned in religious texts and, through the centuries; people with leprosy, rejected by society, have received care from, in particular, Christian organisations. They ran Lazar Houses or lazarettes, named after the Biblical parable of Lazarus, for the afflicted. 

The work of religious orders, particularly nuns, in these communities is illustrated in black and white postcards, usually showing matriarchal European nuns standing over the patients. Fortunately, effective community treatment and tracing regimes in most jurisdictions have largely, although not completely, replaced such centres nowadays.

Mycobacterium leprae
Many commemorative postage stamps hail Gerhard Armauer Hansen of Bergen, Norway who discovered the leprosy bacillus, Mycobacterium leprae, in 1873 with hagiographic imagery.

Gerhard Hansen

Hansen’s disease is a synonym for leprosy. Typically, few illustrate the field workers around the world who have devoted their careers to treatment of leprosy.

Philatelic items often helped to raise income for leprosy work in affluent countries, through money raised from charity stamps and picture postcards. Nowadays, letters and postage stamps are superseded by emails. Leprosy charities are struggling as new diseases attract attention, but the need for research funding of this complex, partially understood disease and affected patients remains. Historically, there is much fertile ground for further study.

I have collected philatelic items related to infection for many years and didn’t regard it as a particularly esoteric interest until an avid collector of Asian snuff boxes thought that my area was far more unusual than his!

Similarly, in medicine, we see doctors can become obsessed with a rare syndrome and start to see it everywhere, potentially overlooking more common diagnoses. Dare I say that preoccupation with Covid and its control, eclipsing everything else in healthcare, may have a parallel?

Leprosy control and eradication have been significantly set back by the stringent lockdown measures imposed during the pandemic. Much leprosy work is field-based, visiting remote villages to detect cases in the face of stigma and poverty. Leprosy programmes desperately need support now to avoid increasing case numbers and delayed treatment. The dream of eradication is still in the future.

Chapel for sufferers at Cambridge

Bill Dibb is a retired microbiologist and infection control doctor. dr.dibb@gmail.com