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Real life history: the first decades

25 January 2021

Leprosy, and the misery that ensued, was all too evident in the early 20th century.

Only the most hopeless cases would seek refuge in small, dilapidated colonies, with just a few decaying huts to call home. With very little medical skill and attention given to leprosy sufferers, any hopes of one day leaving for a better life were in vain. Whilst many things have changed for leprosy patients over the course of the last century, such as medical care and treatment, elements of leprosy remain persistent; superstition and myth, prejudice and isolation.

In response to this terrible deprivation, BELRA (now known as Lepra) was founded in 1924, by Sir Leonard Rogers, Reverend Frank Oldrieve and Sir Frank Carter at Mansion House, London, and inaugurated by the then Prince of Wales.

From their experience in Africa and India, the men saw a need for an organisation dedicated to eradicating leprosy and studying the disease. It was imperative for healthcare workers to travel to countries to help those suffering from leprosy. A large recruitment drive by the founders of Lepra saw many English doctors, nurses and lay workers travelling to endemic countries to either establish new, or give strong support to, settlements, clinics and to step up research efforts.

A great deal of manpower was required to improve and create settlements that would provide an adequate setting for leprosy sufferers to live a full and dignified life, and so Lepra was able to secure hundreds of volunteers to help with these momentous projects.

Leprosy settlement, Ankaful, Gold Coast

An example of a settlement is seen here in modern Ghana, then the Gold Coast. It offered new, well-designed houses built with cement blocks and corrugated roofs, and each containing a kitchen and bathroom. Children and those who were very poor were prioritised for tasty meals, all provided and ready to eat at set hours of the day. The settlement layouts were exactly as you’d expect a normal town to be, with streets, lawns, flower beds and seats for any weary householders. 

Education was a top priority for Lepra. It is the catalyst for prosperity outside of life within the settlement, and great emphasis was placed on ensuring the children were armed with not only a full education but vital handicraft skills that would be greatly valued outside of the settlement.

Not only did Lepra set up settlements, they also reached out to those in villages without clinics, where those with leprosy had no hope of treatment or support. This outreach programme was a key part of Lepra’s support strategy, just as it is today. The interventions of Lepra were therefore truly life changing, and the impacts being made were a testament to the vision of the founding partners of Lepra.

However, even in those early decades, there was an even greater success on its way – the cure. In the 1940s a key breakthrough came with the trial of the drug ‘Dapsone’ in India.

Children at Bamenda, Cameroon, hold out their woven baskets with pride

Dapsone (DDS) was identified by Dr Frank Muir, Lepra’s “medical Secretary” in 1945 as being potentially promising for leprosy and he began work with it in earnest that year. His Lepra predecessor, then working in India, Dr Cochrane, was on a trip to Northern Ireland and found that cows were being treated for mastitis with Dapsone. He also thought it could be used for leprosy. Thereafter Lepra launched a lot of research and experiments leading to a variety of publications. These were successful, and by 1949 Lepra announced with scientific and medical certainty that Dapsone was not only effective but relatively safe and surprisingly cheap. The first cure for leprosy; Lepra’s founding fathers had been right, with dedicated research a cure had been found.

Dr Robert Cochrane was the first to use Dapsone in Madras, India, on behalf of Lepra

Dapsone was then introduced across the world at different times, and was most widely used by the end of the 1950s. These days, with the speed of communication and the internet, the information would have been circulated in real time. It is a sad reflection of history that it took many countries over 10 years to use Dapsone as a cure.

What did this breakthrough mean for those living in leprosy settlements? Patients began being declared free of infection, and with it the promise of a return to their homes and families. To be officially discharged, a discharge certificate had to be awarded. Formal ceremonies would take place, where the doctor would wear a tie, respecting the gravity of the occasion, and an audience would watch on whilst patients were awarded their certificates. This was momentous for the patient and gave great hope to the onlookers that they too, one day, could be free of infection.

Dr. Cheverton presenting the first Discharge Certificate in 1952, Ankaful, Ghana.

Since its inception, Lepra has been revolutionising how we treat and care for leprosy patients. Fighting prejudice, discrimination and social isolation, we pride ourselves on being at the forefront of positive change. Our priority is to those who need us, 97 years ago and now. We stand firm for a better life for those who hope it awaits them. Thank you for standing by our side.

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