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Leprosy Facts

What We Know About Leprosy
(600 B.C. -2002)

"The predominant and characteristic form of leprosy in the Old Testament is a white variety, covering either the entire body or a large tract of its surface, which has obtained the name of Lepra mosaica (Smith, 354). This was the strain of Moses, Miriam, Naaman, and Gehazi (Ex: 4:6; Num.12-10, Lev.13:12, 13, 16, 17)

"It was not until 1882, that Robert Koch [1843-1910] discovered the tuberculosis bacillus, and it was even later before it was realized that there were several strains. The bacillus which caused leprosy belongs to the same group and there is an identifiable historical relationship between the two diseases

Throughout history, few diseases have provoked more stigma and cruelty than leprosy, and the disease has been described as unique in its ability to generate fear.

Leprosy is now called Hansen's disease, after Armauer Hanson (1841-1912) who discovered the bacillus Mycobacterium lapeae. Mycobactenium leprae is the Latin name of the leprosy bacillus. If leprosy and tuberculosis are related, then a decrease in leprosy (in urban areas) may be accompanied by a rise in tuberculosis. In our modern world leprosy is very rare indeed, but tuberculosis is making a comeback in certain areas of the world. What is scary is that the new strain of tuberculosis can not be treated in the same way as the old strain.

Leprosy attacks the body in specific areas: multitated hands and feet (with fingers and toes reduced to stumps), collapse of the nasal bridge, missing upper incisors, and ulcerated eyes (that eventually go blind) are the most common.

Leprosy is infectious, but today's researchers say it is difficult to transmit the disease unless someone has prolonged exposure to a leper patient. Leprosy seems to be a family disease and whole families were said to have it, in the Bible.

One way to catch leprosy is to inhale the droplets when a stricken person sneezes. So when carrying for a leper a face mask and goggles is recommended, much like the precautions that are taken in today's world in regards to A.I.D.S.. Once in your bloodstream, the bacilli travels along the nervous system and causes anaesthesia (the numbing of the sensation of pain).

***Today the spread of leprosy can be controlled with early detection and chemotherapy.

True leprosy probably existed in the Levant from Biblical times, but the term was often used for various dermatological conditions producing disfiguring ulcers and sores. Historians can trace leprosy to India from about 600 B.C. Archeaologists have found bodies of lepers (in Egypt and other parts of Africa) that seemed to have been banished from the main cities, since leprosy can be controlled by isolation. We think that the ancient Egyptians might have known that isolation was the best way to contain the disease, but then again most people do not like a leper in their midst. It might have been fear, not medical knowledge that placed them away from the rest of society.

The leprosy of modern Syria, Spain, Greece, and Norway is the Elephantiasis graecorum variety. This was the variety brought home by the Crusaders into western and northern Europe. This is not the white leprosy as described in Lev. 13, but a form of elephantiasis. It is now known that there are skin diseases that begin in the acarus; and others that begin as a fungus.

Geikie's Life of Christ says that leprosy begins with little specks on the eyelids and on the palms of the hands, and then slowly spreads over the rest of the body. Many times the hair will turn white and the skin has crusted swellings and sores. From the skin it travels to the tissues (bones and joints) and then to the marrow of the bones. Speech, hearing, and vision are attacked, and in the final stages consumption or dropsy brings death. The disease is considered hereditary to the fourth generation.

Leper laws in medieval Europe were based on Ancient Levitical decrees.

.......This is according to the liturgical handbook, the Sarum Use, used in England (13th c.).

The Church then called the leper's suffering their purgatory on earth. In Matthew 8:3 Jesus cures a leper.

Leprosy was thought to be spread by sex. In The Testament of Cresseid by Robert Henryson (who flourished from 1470-1500), one heroine is punished by God with leprosy for her lust and pride (two of the seven deadly sins).

    From the eleventh century on, there was a rapid surge in the number of hospitals built to house lepers.

  • By 1225, there were 19,000 leprosarias in Europe.
  • By 1226, there were 2,000 leper hospitals in France.
  • In the same time period, in England, there were 130.

By 1350, leprosy was in decline. Some say this was because of the plague, which killed most of the leper carriers. Others think it was because of the rise of tuberculosis which had a similar pathogen. After this decline, old leprosarias were used for the poor and their infectious diseases, for the mentally ill, and people with syphillus (Porter, 120).

In 1881, there were fifty to one-hundred lepers reported in the United States. Dr. Bross, a Jesuit missionary, was attached to the lazaretto (leper hospital) in Trinidad. He felt the disease was transmissible and could spread.

The Sandwich Islands never had lepers until 40-50 years ago, and in recent times, one-tenth of the population is recorded as "lepers."

Dr. J. Hutchinson, F.R.S. stated: "We find that nearly everywhere the disease is most common is on the seashore, and that, when it spreads inland, it generally occurs on the shores of lakes or along the course of large rivers"(Smith).

This holds true since many Pacific Islands still have lepers.

The cry of "unclean" was their way of warning everyone that a leper was in their town. Later on, leper bodies were found in Coptic cemetaries, on the island of Biga, near Philae.

Although lepers faced horrific deformities, it was rarely the clinical "cause of death." Instead, they often fell victim to injuries sustained because of their lack of pain. A leper could quite literally burn their skin and not know it when working near a fire cooking. These burns then would develop an infection and they might die of the infection rather than the leper bacillus. Today forecasts of plague and leprosy would bring mass hysteria to the world, as it did in ancient times.

This disease has not yet been pronounced eradicated and it has the potential of developing into new strains as modern day tuberculosis has done. Since these two diseases have the same bacillus, with a variety of strains, there must be careful monitoring of those cases that still exist. That is why the New Zealand Order of St. Lazarus has made this one of their continuous projects.


Filer, Joyce. Ancient Egypt Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.

Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development

Novartis- Leprosy and Health Sector"

Porter, Roy. The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A medical History of Humanity. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Smith, L.L.D., William. A Dictionary of the Bible. Atlanta: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986, 353-357.

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This page was last updated on March 23, 2004.