On a chilly night in November 1894, a coal barge glided up the Mississippi River toward a dilapidated sugar plantation, Indian Camp, delivering its seven sickly passengers to their new home.
It was the last chance of refuge for these patients, and it was more than likely the place they’d be buried. For two years, no physician or nurse would risk infection by living on site, and the seven leprosy-afflicted souls were alone to fend for themselves.Then, the Catholic Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul came. Disguised as an ostrich farm to prevent locals from forming an angry mob, the Louisiana Leper Home was essentially a prison for sufferers of the fearful disease who had been court ordered to quarantine. After the assigned resident doctor abandoned his post and no one would agree to replace him, the Board of Control appealed to the Daughters of Charity, who answered the call. The first four Sisters arrived in April of 1896. For the next 109 years a total of 116 Sister would serve the mission of caring for the patients.
As the number of quarantined patients grew, the crumbling estate slowly transformed. In 1905, the Louisiana State Board of Control for the Louisiana Leper Home purchased the property and began construction. Most of the patients that came to the leprosarium would live there until they died, their bodies buried in a cemetery that now holds over 1,000 former residents.
In 1921 the federal government took over the hospital from the state of Louisiana and it became the National Leprosarium, the only leprosy hospital in the United States. The territory of Hawaii maintained a leprosy settlement on the island of Molokai, established in 1866, but it was for Hawaiian patients only.
By the late 1930s, the hospital had its own infrastructure that included a sewer system and a power plant. There were two churches, a ballroom, a patients’ canteen for snacks, and a golf course, but that didn’t change the fact that the patients were still considered inmates, some even brought to the complex in shackles. Mercifully, the 1940s brought swift victories in treatment and understanding of the disease, and as medications succeeded and myths about contagion were dispelled, the word “leper” became unacceptable and the term “leprosy” was replaced with the new, less stigma-drenched “Hansen’s disease”
By the 1960s, enforcement of quarantine laws became lax, and as the years trudged along, the “leper colony” transformed into what would eventually become the Gillis W. Long Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy) Center. Out-patient programs were developed, the gates were opened, and patients were finally free to seek treatment outside the quarantine setting. This presented a new challenge–many patients didn’t have anywhere to go. Their homes and families long gone, their ability to function in the outside world destroyed by deformities and decades of isolation, some remained at the facility, and others who tried to leave would return, unable to find their place in the outside world.
By 1998, it was decided that the hospital and grounds were too extensive and expensive to maintain for a disease that had been demystified and cured. But the remaining patient community appealed to the Clinton administration to stay. Forty ambulatory patients remained at the location, although the hospital and administration were relocated to Baton Rouge.
The National Hansen’s Disease Museum opened its doors in 1999, just as the treatment facility closed. The museum has over 6,000 square feet of exhibits on the history of the hospital, lives of the patient, staff members and the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. They offer extensive education on the disease itself. There are no longer patients onsite.