Mystery and misconceptions continue to surround the biblical scourge contracted by at least 250,000 people each year.
There was a time and a place when, if one wanted to be canonized, going to a leper colony was a surefire way of earning the requisite "angel of mercy" cred. Just last week, "Mother of Outcasts" Marianne Cope was posthumously recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church for her work with people afflicted by leprosy in late 1800s Hawaii. She was the second person working with that same population to receive this rare honor.
Caring for the afflicted made for compelling narrative as well, as nurse and missionary Kate Marsden learned with the 1892 publication of On Sledge and Horseback to the Outcast Siberian Lepers. While the action-packed details of her journey across the taiga occupies the majority of the tome's 300 pages, little compares to the "peculiar thrill" she describes at her first glimpse of the lepers -- as it was then still acceptable to call those suffering from what we now also refer to as Hansen's disease -- who had been banished to small settlements hidden in the depths of the forest:
Some of the people came limping, and some leaning on sticks, to catch the first glimpse of us, their faces and limbs distorted by the dreadful ravages of the disease. One poor creature could only crawl by the help of a stool, and all had the same indescribably hopeless expression of the eyes which indicates the disease. I scrambled off the horse, and went quickly among the little crowd of the lame, the halt, and the blind. Some were standing, some were kneeling, and some crouching on the ground, and all with eager faces turned toward me. They told me afterward that they believed God had sent me...
The lepers, to Marsden's horror, had been entirely forsaken by their communities. They spent much of their time in their book prostrating themselves before her and admiring her refusal to fear them. But if she allowed herself a bit of a heroine complex, Marsden's main objective was to call attention to the lepers' plight. She certainly didn't sugarcoat the dire realities of their exile. "I began to wonder," she writes several chapters later, "why some of these lepers did not, in their desperation, throw themselves in the way of the bears, and so end their miseries."
Descriptions like these seem quaint artifacts of less enlightened times. Surely, there's far less opportunity to be beatified for such self-sacrifice in our era of modern medicine. Multidrug therapy -- while not a full-fledged cure for leprosy -- has caused the number of cases worldwide to drop from 5.4 million to somewhere in the realm of 250,000 since 1985, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The last two leper colonies in the U.S. -- the one attended by Cope, and another near Baton Rouge -- closed their gates to new residents toward the end of the twentieth century. While infections still occur in this country at a rate of about 200 cases per year, you're most likely to contract the disease through foreign travel or contact with an armadillo.