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Dr Molesworth with his microscope Dr Molesworth with his microscope

World Poetry Day - a celebration of hope and change

19 March 2021

The old regime of driving leprosy 

Patients away from their homes 

Is long since forgotten. 

People live equally nowadays, with leprosy

Or without leprosy

For segregation is no more in practice

O friends and brothers 

Let us all thank Dr Molesworth 

For the work he has done to our country 

Farewell Doctor and have a good journey home 

Remember us wherever you will be 

Smith Mwenekisindire wrote these words on behalf of the patients and staff at Lepra's Mua settlement in Malawi, East Africa. 

Doctor Brownlow David Molesworth made a huge impact on the lives of people undergoing treatment at Lepra's Malawi settlements, outpatient clinics and hospital unit. From helping people receive treatment and, ultimately a cure, to breaking down social barriers; Dr Molesworth was an important figure in the fight against leprosy in Malawi. 

On World Poetry Day, we want to take a closer look at the poetry he inspired and the important relationship between leprologists and people affected by leprosy. Leprosy is so often a disease that inspires loneliness, destitution and isolation. Before a cure was commonplace and amidst the fear-mongering and myths that plagued most of the 20th century, real people tried to eke out an existence, cut off from family and friends and living with a disease they didn't understand. With little support available, many people developed life-altering disabilities, which further added to these intense feelings of loneliness. It was doctors like Dr Molesworth who crossed that divide, devoting his life to bridging the gap of knowledge and ensuring people diagnosed with leprosy could live normal lives; lives of purpose and independence. 

The use of the word "equally" in Smith's poem demonstrates the values of Lepra's work: leprosy is a disease like any other, treatable and curable. It is not something to be feared. It is not something to inspire discrimination or prejudice. 

This poem, gifted to Dr Molesworth by Smith, was cherished enough to make it from Malawi to England and even featured in Lepra News, issue 34, published in 1979. 

A revolutionary for his time

Dr David Molesworth, who was so instrumental in treating leprosy, both in Ghana and Malaysia as well as Malawi, was evidently beloved by those who came in contact with him. A skilled surgeon, an esteemed leprologist and a keen advocate for people affected by leprosy - he played many important parts. A dynamic, persuasive, charismatic individual, Dr Molesworth was appointed permanent director of the Leprosy Control Project in Malawi at a time when government advocacy across the world for people with leprosy was all but nonexistent. 

I know that the word 'dedicated' will cause Dr Molesworth to frown disapprovingly - but I am unrepentant. These men [Dr Molesworth and his colleagues] are wonderful and I feel tremendously privileged to have shared their lives and work - Mrs Peggy Morton, Regional Organiser for the North East Malawi region.

By the time Smith penned his poem of thanks to Dr Molesworth, the latter was a powerful figure in the leprosy field. 

By 1976, Dr Molesworth had settled into his command post of the entire Malawi Leprosy Control Project. He was also operating in an advisory capacity to the Government of Malawi, ensuring state assistance for identifying and treating people with leprosy across the country. In his writings, located deep in the Lepra archives, he estimated that half the leprosy patients identified in Malawi in 1976 had been successfully registered for treatment, some 30,000 individuals. In 1978, he retired from his position, leaving a legacy that has endured to this day, through poetry and history. 

In his own words, Lepra's work with leprosy across Malawi was nothing short of miraculous. 

I think we have all been lucky. Lepra, to have found Malawi as host, Malawi to have accepted Lepra to undertake a task beyond their own resources and manpower; and all to have peace without which such a project cannot exist. To have had the task of establishing such control in a relatively small but wholly co-operative country, backed by generous finance and co-operaton from home, is a leprologist's dream and any success that has been achieved, you made possible - Dr Molesworth. 

An enduring legacy

Gwendolyn Brooks, an esteemed American poet, once wrote, "Poetry is life distilled." We see that so clearly in Smith's poetry.  

In Smiths, poem, we see a snapshot of life in Malawi in the 1970s. A time of great global upheaval, scientific advances and social change, set against the backdrop of an endemic disease that inspired fear and prejudice.  

Smith's final line, "Remember us wherever you will be", is particularly poignant on this World Poetry Day. At Lepra and on this day especially, we remember and honour Dr Molesworth and the people of Malawi who made the lives of people living with leprosy easier, fairer and filled with hope.