Life in a Leprosarium

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, March 26th. We’re so glad you’ve tuned in to WORLD Radio today. Good morning to you. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a quarantine from history.

Today’s social-distancing requirements are likely to end when the threat of COVID-19 diminishes. But for some people in the past, quarantine lasted for most of their lives. 

Here’s WORLD reporter Kim Henderson.

KIM HENDERSON, REPORTER: Just beside the levee at Carville, Louisiana, is a complex of buildings and dormitories that once was the National Leprosarium of the United States. I’m standing beside the entrance gate. For a good part of the 20th century, patients diagnosed with leprosy came right through this spot on their way to be quarantined …with no idea if they’d ever come out. 

The manicured grounds now house a National Guard installation. Staff member Bruce Casey offered me a tour in his Yamaha golf cart.   

CASEY: Right now we are on top of steam tunnels. You hear the panels moving. In the olden days, they generated their own power.  

And grew their own food. Published their own newspaper. Operated their own school. Carville was its own community, with some 450 quarantined members at its peak in the 1940s. 

CASEY: OK, this originally was the hospital, they’ve converted it to a hotel for the military use…

I decided to stay the night at the old infirmary. Little remains of its busier days. There’s a patch of original green tile on the second floor. And the rooftop is still flat, just like it was designed to be, a special outdoor getaway for patients. While they sat there in wheelchairs, they could catch a breeze from the Mississippi River and watch boats passing by. 

A front desk clerk told me what it was like to grow up near the leprosarium.  

CLERK: I lived in Gonzales, a little town outside Carville. As children coming up, we was always taught from our parents don’t go past Martin Luther King Drive, do not go past that road. Back then we thought the illness was contagious… 

I met another local resident who actually grew up on the grounds. Austin Barbay’s father worked at the leprosarium. He remembers some of the perks of quarantine life for patientsa theatre with the latest movies, the softball team’s winning streak, a stocked fish pond, Helen Keller’s visit. 

But he also saw their pain. 

BARBAY: There was a patient here: name was Dempster. He was 5 years old. His mother came here with him. She had the disease, and his sister did, who was quite a bit older than him. He lived to be in his 80s and never left Carville…

Catholic nuns wearing sailboat-like hats appear in many photographs taken at Carville. But Protestants made an impact here, too. Carl Elder was a chaplain who arrived for duty in 1951. Donations from American Leprosy Missions purchased the Montgomery Ward mail order house where he lived. It’s still standing on 2nd Street.  

So are the extensive covered walkways I saw on my golf cart tour.

Chaplain Elder wrote that he came to view the enclosed walkways between Carville’s buildings as his ministerial niche. He called it “corridor counseling.” There in the breezeways, Elder dealt with patients who were experiencing quarantine fallout, feeling forsaken and forgotten.

Paul Brand was a caring doctor who served here.

YANCEY: Paul Brand worked primarily on feet and hands. He started by finding various ways to move tendons around…

He and his wife spent 20 years working with patients at Carville. Best-selling author Philip Yancey shadowed them here and eventually co-wrote three books with Paul. 

YANCEY: Every time when I saw Dr. Brand with a patient, he would be stroking the hand, stroking the feet. He believed touch was one of the most, one of the most beautiful gifts that he could give a leprosy patient. Many of them had not been touched by others out of fear, undue fears because it’s not very contagious as a disease. But he would always touch, and you could see the impact on his leprosy patients. He, he and Margaret both were in the business of restoring human souls. 

Today, Carville is closed and its quarantine lifted. Researchers here discovered antibiotics can cure leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, as it’s now called. Even so, touch is still important for patients, according to Pamela Bartlett. Before she retired, Bartlett was a social worker for the National Hansen’s Disease Programs. 

BARTLETT: One of our doctors would greet patients as they got off the elevator, grab their hand and rub their arm and say, “Oh, I’m so glad you’re here.” And having seen her do that and seeing the patient’s reaction—sometimes the first time they had ever been touched by a medical person—I, of course, started doing the same thing.

Misunderstandings about leprosy still cause a lot of grief. One of Bartlett’s clients came to Louisiana for treatment, then returned home to the Carolinas. She thought she’d be safe confiding in her dentist, a medical professional. 

BARTLETT: He immediately went to the school board of their small town and said, “We have a child in our school system whose mother has leprosy. We’ve got to do something about this.” 

The young woman found out all the second grade parents were having a meeting to discuss the issue. 

BARTLETT: She went down and she shut that down in a hurry and said, “You can’t do this. This is just totally wrong and I’m not even a danger… I’m more likely to give you a cold. I can’t give you this disease.”

The group of parents listened. And, after hearing all the facts about Hansen’s disease and her treatment, they agreed she was right. No social distancing necessary.  

Finishing my tour at Carville, I can’t help but notice the very healthy-looking National Guardsmen now making use of leprosarium property. 

CASEY: This was more living area for the patients, but now it’s been converted to on-site personnel, little apartments and such…  

But the exterior of some 50 buildings can’t be changed too much. The Park Service placed the Carville Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. So in a way, there will always be a memorial of sorts to the quarantine that happened here. 

For WORLD, I’m Kim Henderson reporting from Carville, Louisiana.   

(Photo/Kim Henderson) 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

Like this story?

To hear a lot more like it, subscribe to The World and Everything in It via iTunes, Overcast, Stitcher, or Pocket Casts.







Pocket Casts

(Requires a fee)

2 comments on Life in a Leprosarium

  1. J. Myles says:

    Would like to have seen something on their excellent museum, which is in one of the buildings. Also the fact that Leprosy is genetic, and that not everyone can contract the disease.

  2. Tim Jr says:

    I came here my entire life, up to the closing of the facility. My grandparents worked here, after being treated and cured.
    My grandfather was the editor of the Star, my grandmother was the director of public relations and started the museum that’s still on site, she also taught as an ESL teacher.
    I remember playing all over the property, from the prop room above the theater stage and bingo in front of the stage, to the paddle boats in the pond. On the putt putt course, volleyball and softball field, to the dark room of the newspaper, which has a secret entrance as I remember it. Every 4th of July my Gpaw would help light an incredible fireworks display.
    I grew up interacting with most all of the patients, never having a second thought of it. I never knew of the struggles they faced, or the way society thought of them. I didn’t know my Gmaw was a patient until I saw a documentary towards the end of the facility.
    I cherish my memories of Carville and am extremely appreciative of the opportunity to have witnessed part of it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.